"Every record I make has an archetype," says Annie Clark, the creative force behind St. Vincent. "Strange Mercy was Housewives on Pills. St. Vincent was Near-Future Cult Leader. MASSEDUCTION is different, it's pretty first person. You can't fact-check it, it's not a diary entry, but if you want to know about my life, listen to this record."
MASSEDUCTION (out October 13, on Loma Vista Recordings), is a bold, emotional reckoning largely themed around power. Or as Clark specifies, "All the forces that can swallow you whole."
The album comes at a pivotal point in her life. Clark's last album, St. Vincent, won her breakout acclaim plus performances on the season finale of SNL and with a reconstituted Nirvana for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The album landed on several album-of-the-year lists (among them, Pitchfork, New York Times, and Rolling Stone), culminating in Clark's first GRAMMY nomination and win for Best Alternative Music Album. Around the same time her personal life was thrust into tabloids. The mass seduction she writes of includes notoriety and beauty, but it also basks in intoxicating distractions such as pills, sex, and sorrow.
The first single, "New York," feels astonishingly intimate. Its intro ("New York isn't New York without you, love") was something she texted to a friend, but the sentiment has multiple meanings. "The song is a love letter to the city, too," she says, "to all my friends and lovers who'd either moved away or moved to a different plane of existence."
"New York"'s intimacy notwithstanding, MASSEDUCTION scales up from its predecessor; it's richly melodic and vividly produced. The album marks her first collaboration with co-producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Sia), and their work occupies a fertile space between pop and art rock, with narratives that pivot from sentimental to savage.
This aesthetic figures most literally into "Pills," a song that used the language of advertising and beats from Digi+Phonics producer Sounwave (Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q) to convey a darker reality. "It came to me after I took a sleeping pill," Clark says of its sticky rhyme ("Pills to wake, pills to sleep, pills pills pills every day of the week"). "'There's a pill for everything. It's an interesting thing, how to figure out lifelong anxiety and depression."
The song, the second on MASSEDUCTION, sets up the listener for a power struggle to come. Clark's songs are profound, without being crassly confessional. The title track, for instance, is a metaphor for both sexual desires and blithe consumerism ("I can't turn off what turns me on"). The brightly pulsating "Sugarboy" and epic, thunderous "Fear the Future" ("definitely the action-movie sequence where the world is falling apart, but you're running towards each other," Clark says) follow in kind, exploring the reckless abandon of romance. The stark funk of "Savior" and ethereal "Smoking Section," meanwhile, dig into its codependent side.
The latter, an elegiac provocation penned two years back, was the first song Clark wrote for the album. And its lyrics are razors: "Sometimes I go to the edge of my roof/And I think I'll jump just to punish you." Says Clark, "Doesn't everybody feel like that at times? I had a deep imprint of that feeling, and wrote it as a lyric first." It features soulful pedal-steel guitars courtesy of Greg Leisz ("the best in the world," she enthuses), who can be heard throughout the album. "The sound of the pedal steel just breaks my heart into a million pieces," she says. "It's that sweet spot of joy and sorrow in the same breath."
Even a track such as "Los Ageless," which paints an absurdist reality, bears autobiographical relevance. (Clark, currently a New Yorker, has opened a studio on the West Coast.) In the space of seconds, the synth-dripping anthem swells from assessment of the city's Peter Pan complex to outsize self-awareness ("How can anyone have you, lose you, and not lose their mind, too?"). "It is about love lost. But it can mean a lot of different things, too. I was also thinking about youth, beauty, and fame," she says. "All these things people try to hold on to. The proximity to all that, but not having it, drives some people insane. I like L.A. - don't get me wrong - but it's a little bit of a funhouse mirror."
MASSEDUCTION is, most accurately, a mosaic of Clark's experiences. "I have all this source material, because I never really stop writing," she says. "With this record, I had years' worth of notes and voice memos that I'd collected on the road" - the aforementioned intro to "New York" being one of them - "'Here's this melody from Amsterdam.' 'Here's this lyric from Latvia,' and so on."
Turning that source material into MASSEDUCTION required monastic discipline. "For months, until I finished the record, I refrained from anything that could be a distraction. I wasn't drinking, and I was celibate," she explains. "I was a tabula-rasa version of myself, the conservation and focus of energy."
Much of Clark's creative process has entailed challenging, then surprising, even herself. "I started playing the guitar when I was 12 and really never stopped" she adds. It's somewhat inevitable that her identity would ultimately entwine with her creations. "Music is still my entire identity. There are so many ways to be creative. With this record, I really broadened my palate."