Ben Whelan’s Hot Takes - St. Vincent - MASSEDUCTION
It’s been three and a half years since St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album, which also happened to be the album that put her on the map as the paradoxical (but increasingly common) mainstream indie rocker. Also, unlike another band who chose to self-title their fourth album, it actually panned out, whilst not being panned by the fickle and controversial-for-the-sake-of-being-controversial music press. A Grammy, Pitchfork praise, and the obligatory Portlandia appearance would follow. Because by 2014, “hipster” had become mainstream already. It was no longer just your local barista donning horn-rimmed glasses and a beard from the Mckinley era. It was your local frat boy, as well. And Annie Clark (alias St. Vincent) benefitted heavily from this trend. She had been releasing albums since 2007, choosing to title her first album after an Arrested Development running gag, as if waiting for the perfect time to slap her identity on the name of an album. Eventually, that time came, and 2014 was her year to headline festivals, appear on TV, stand in for Kurt Cobain, and just generally accept propulsion into the mainstream.
However, it is now 2017, so she certainly opted to wait and methodically hone her craft, rather than capitalize on the momentum she had coming out of her last record. While three and a half years is not an inordinate length of time between albums, the turnaround was certainly not quick either. It begs the question: what exactly has changed since 2014 -- musically, culturally, etc? The answer I believe is that, if anything, indie has become even more mainstream, and now there are prescribed indie codes bands and artists need to follow to try and adhere to the template. There are a couple signs I noticed right off the bat that seem to suggest these codes are not lost on St. Vincent.
Firstly, just look at the name of her latest album -- “MASSEDUCTION”. No, not “Masseduction”. “MASSEDUCTION”. It seems that all caps is in vogue right now. Just ask CHVRCHES, BØRNS, BROODS, and the publicly-shamed-though-at-one-point-seemed-like-they’d-go-somewhere PWR BTTM. Still the best parallel could actually be drawn with another band that debuted in the 2000s, released their second most recent album within a few months of St. Vincent’s eponymous, and chose to name their latest album in the ONEWORDCAPSLOCKFORMAT. While the name WALLS is actually an acronym, it’s clear that much like St. Vincent, Kings of Leon are not going to miss an opportunity to assimilate either. I totally get why a lot of newer bands have opted to follow the template. It’s hard to make it in the music industry these days, and you have to know how to market yourself to make it big, which this trend might help bands do. However, I guess it’s just a little bit sad to see seasoned musicians adhere to such fleeting trends that will likely be the source of parody in ten years. It’s a bit like if the Rolling Stones chose to release a vaporwave album in earnest. We’d all be cringing a little bit. Someone should have told her she could’ve been even more mid-2010s by misspelling it and adding spaces between all the letters.
Secondly, the name of the album is one word. How many artists that have broken through in the past few years can you think of that have one word names? Probably a lot. In addition to the artists mentioned above, you have Baths, Porches, Alvvays, Wavves, COIN, Wet, etc. Once again the list goes on, and once again I get why these bands (many of whom weren’t even making music professionally when St. Vincent debuted) chose to do this. They are just being savvy businesspeople. Though, once again I don’t think someone like St. Vincent should buy into it when she is lauded for being an innovator, who already has the success and credibility to forge whatever path she chooses.
Granted these trends in naming albums or bands are not brand new, but they have seemed to be part of music for the last few years at least. But why have I devoted multiple paragraphs to talking about the name of the album? Well, like any good music journalist, I must revel in my own, unsolicited, and somewhat tangential opinions for a minimum of three paragraphs before delving into the task at hand. But it’s also because more often than not, the name suggests a lot about the content. If she’s choosing to adhere to trends with the name, then she is likely choosing to adhere to trends with the style of music. In the case of so many bands, this can lead to watered down, half-hearted albums that sound more like desperate attempts at remaining relevant than attempts at doing something bold, groundbreaking, or contrarian. Therefore, I was scared that this album would be no different. Was it? You’re finally about to find out my hot take!
The album definitely fits the general mold of music in the past few years. In contrast to the mid-2000s rock revival, when guitars were cool again, there has been a general trend this decade for bands to dust off a vintage synthesizer and put their guitars in storage, andMasseduction is definitely more synth-heavy than her last album, which instead incorporated more heavy riffing on guitars. Taken as a whole, it synthesizes influences from 80s new wave, as well as 90s industrial. Songs from the prior category show a variety of influences, from Prince on “Pills” to the more danceable side of new wave (e.g. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yazoo, the Human League) on album standout “Sugarboy”. Definitely the most upbeat song on the album,”Sugarboy” features Clark’s voice slinking along in perfect complement to the pulsating, uber 80s synth line. Not one to avoid saying something profound, Clark still addresses topics of gender identity on this song, rather than sitting back and opting for more simplistic lyricism as many bands do on the album’s dance track. Also, while “Pills” drags on a bit, with a drawn out outro, “Sugarboy” manages to hold its momentum for its entire, 4-minute duration.
The only song that resembles 2014 St. Vincent is “Savior”, with its meandering and staccato guitar line. At other times, the music resembles TV on the Radio, as is the case with “Fear the Future”, which features industrial influences on the synths and a surprisingly breezy and playful vocal melody. I really could hear TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe do a duet with her on this song, as the melody is right in his wheelhouse. I mean he was on Portlandia, too. Someone tell Fred or Carrie to make this happen. Other songs delve deeper into such industrial techno influences. “Los Ageless” is probably the best example of this, as Clark vaguely laments either the loss of a lover or discontent over life in LA. It’s really quite vague.
There are some moments on the album that feel like afterthoughts. Interlude “Dancing With the Ghost” just doesn’t feel fleshed out enough and plays more like an exercise in production. Also, album closer “Smoking Section” is a bit of a disappointment after album standout “Slow Disco”, which features beautiful strings and cinema-ready arrangement.
“Slow Disco” isn’t the only track to feature more stripped back arrangement and a slower tempo. While a very electronic and upbeat album overall, there are some more stripped back moments. “New York” is pure mid-2000s piano balladry. Her voice pleads along, oddly reminiscent of Tom Higgenson. Also, sadness over love lost and a New York City setting definitely does not act to downplay Plain White T’s comparison on this track. The grand piano arrangement also brings to mind Keane, and the main hook sounds an awful lot like “sugar we’re goin’ down swingin’” by yet another band huge in the mid-2000s. Despite being referential, these influences come as a surprise and offer a refreshing change of pace that gives the album some variety. On piano ballad “Happy Birthday, Johnny”, she seems to be addressing a past love who is down on his luck, while also suggesting the media doesn’t know “the real version” of her as Johnny does. Such a line serves to further St. Vincent’s mystique, for which she is widely known. David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, with whom Clark collaborated on an album back in 2012, felt that he still did not know her on a personal level even after touring with her for a year, though also said that she maintained this level of mystery without seeming distant or standoffish. Byrne really did sum up how the public sees St. Vincent -- enigmatic but not arrogant. This release serves to further this persona and, despite some forgettable tracks, holds up nicely as a follow-up to her landmark 2014 album. 7.5/10