Perhaps Cara Delevingne was always going to feature in a review of Annie Clark’s new St Vincent album, whatever it sounded like, and whatever it concerned. Because when an incredibly talented female musician endowed with striking facial bone structure falls in love with a talented female model/actress endowed with a Platonic-ideal pair of eyebrows, there can be no doubt that slather-mouthed voyeurism and pornographic intrigue will follow.
Sex sells, and what would readers, whose clicks and pounds become ever more desirable by the day, find more titillating than allusions to the fact that two fantastically successful attractive young women used to have sex with each other??? There’s no escaping from mentioning Delevigne, even for publications who aspire to be scrupulous and principled such as this, because Annie Clark has written a devastating break-up album about her former paramour that shatters all you thought you knew about her St Vincent persona, and re-writes the style guide to her sound.
The break-up is everywhere on MASSEDUCTION, and it seems to have ruptured Clark’s world-view entirely – she can’t live without pills, she doesn’t know how to do sex anymore, and she knows it’s over but she’s not over it. It’s glorious how realistically messy she depicts the split as being. On ‘Young Lover’ (Delevingne was a decade her junior) she can’t conclude it was for the best (“Young lover…I was your drug”) without it graphically resurrecting her lust (“I miss the taste of your tongue”). At times she feels wronged, like on ‘Smoking Section’ when she sings “Sometimes I go to the edge of my roof/I think I’ll jump just to punish you”, at other times she blames herself, referencing “a fool in the mirror” on ‘Slow Disco’. But mostly, she sees the split as having been inevitable, like on ‘Los Ageless’, which runs into a grungy clearing halfway through only to return to the chorus with a fully smocked-up choir; it then promptly dissolves, and you can hear Clark reciting a poem above its death throes: “I try to tell you that I love you and it comes out all sick…but I guess that’s just me honey, I guess that’s how I’m built”. It’s there in anxious opener ‘Hang On Me’ with the chorus “You and me, we’re not meant for this world”, which is all the more painful given that in another context those same words could signal their manifest destiny to flourish and transcend.
And how she misses her! ‘Los Ageless’ proceeds like a standard St Vincent number, with a typical theme, referencing the remain-youthful-at-any-cost inhabitants of the showbiz world where “the mothers milk their young”, over a lithe guitar groove and drum machine. But the chorus is a distressing intrusion, suddenly switching focus back to Delevigne with seismic power: “How can anybody love you and lose you and not lose their mind too?” she asks with truly alarming distress. The sheer emotional force of their break-up seems to prevent Clark from truly inhabiting the St Vincent persona, and sing about anything else for more than a verse at a time.
It’s knocked her so far from an even keel that on ‘Pills’, she goes from “guru to voodoo, and voodoo to zen” in search of respite, but still ends up needing “pills to think”. Her chorus’s inane invocation of the power of pills sounds like the theme-tune to a Big Pharma CEO’s wet dream, and this psychopharmacological element serves as the reference point to her second album Strange Mercy, in what is essentially a career retrospective in miniature. There’s also a section that recalls her horn-heavy collaboration with David Byrne (!) Love this Giant, and the buzzing, jagged guitar chops which featured prominently on her eponymous third album. The song navigates to a coda in the shape of a ‘Life on Mars’-esque ballad that stupendously dramatises her emotional dysfunction.
St Vincent steps boldly into new territory with every track. Generally, the album is very dance-oriented, and her awesome guitar licks are rare. ‘Sugarboy’, features a heavy Moroder-style synth arpeggio, and ‘Los Ageless’ also borrows a dance aesthetic. But ‘New York’ and ‘Happy Birthday Jonny’ are disarmingly melancholy piano-led affairs. On ‘New York’, she finds that the reminiscences triggered by a journey through that great city – 1st Avenue, home runs, blue bloods, Astor – bring her no joy. Her chorus signposts and inflates her emotions to the extent that it sounds fit for Broadway: “I have lost a hero, I have lost a friend”, she laments, and that lost companion could be Delevingne herself or the now-lacklustre city itself.
One of the most surprising things about this record is how critical Clark is of herself. On 2014’s St Vincent, she adopted the persona of a New Age cult-leader-cum-alien, with an invincible aura and confidence that allowed her to talk about masturbation in the same breath as about taking out the trash, or shirking Jesus’s eternal embrace in favour of the love of other girls. Here she is self-lacerating and uncertain. On the bittersweet, Tom-Waits-channelling ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’ she notes the protagonist (possibly the return of ‘Prince Johnny’ from St Vincent) asking “Annie how could you do this to me?”, making sure to use her real name so the blow is more personal.
Her displacement even extends to the bedroom – on ‘Saviour’ she dresses up in various kinky outfits to satisfy her pleading lover (as a teacher, a nurse, even a nun), but “none of this shit fits”. One of those pills she needs’ is a “pill to fuck”, and on ‘Masseduction’ she seems wary of her own sexuality, despairing “I can’t turn off what turns me on”. On its own, ‘Masseduction’, and especially that line, could be read as a celebration of her sexuality, but given the context of the album’s other tracks, and the fact that backing vocals seem to be provided by a killer robot who oscillates between demanding “mass seduction” and “mass destruction”, she appears to be equating her sexual proclivities with apocalypse. It’s a great song, and also notable for the shade she seems to be throwing Miley Cyrus’ way with the line about “teenage Christian virgins holding out their tongues”.
MASSEDUCTION is the sound of St Vincent becoming human, and is a real achievement. Clark was known for being a great guitarist and an entertaining song-writer with a penchant for disturbing and dystopian imagery. Here she has shown that there are many more facets to her – she is an emotionally expressive lyricist capable of profundity, and an adaptable musician who can fill a dancefloor one minute, and resonate in a down-on-your-luck diner the next. She’s a master-songwriter. Every song has poignant, absorbing lyrics, and what it may lack in skull-cracking guitar grooves it compensates for in spine-chilling depth.
The most arresting line comes on ‘Slow Disco’, where Clark slowly and deliberately sings “Slip my hand from your hand, leave you dancing with a ghost”. Her and Delevingne have disconnected, but are still emotionally entangled, still present, still there – that’s a break-up, and that’s the album: it’s over but it’s not, and perhaps it was always going to be. To close the final track, Clark sings, over and over again “It’s not the end”. But of course, in both senses, it is.
Featured image: Pitchfork.