St. Vincent refines sonic brand, avoids redundancy with ‘Masseduction’

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Grade: 4.5 / 5.0

Albums are an imperious art form. For most people, settling down to listen to a noncondensable collection of songs without having the music settle into the background out of focus is hard to make time for. This is not helped by the fact that albums are often not worth the time investment — St. Vincent’s new album is an exception.

As they already represent a sonic shift from the artist’s previous work (or, at least, that’s what should be happening), albums are often tonally vanilla, internally. Most listeners cherry-pick the songs they like off of the albums they listen to, appreciating them individually. Masseduction — stylized MASSEDUCTION — encourages listeners not to do that.

In other words, where albums are beginning to seem passé, Masseduction from St. Vincent reaffirms the worthwhileness of the album.

Annie Clark, known by her stage name St. Vincent, left Sufjan Stevens’ touring band to form her own in 2006, and since then, she has poured a plethora of musical influences into her discography. Throughout her previous five albums, St. Vincent blended soft rock, experimental rock, electropop and jazz, carrying variations of all of those sounds to Masseduction.

The result is that Masseduction sounds very much like it was created by St. Vincent but it is not redundant.

This is one of the more difficult things for an artist to execute. As musical artists progress, a sonic brand tends to form around them, creating a comfortable shell of steadily producible, risk-averse music, a la Lana del Rey. St. Vincent does not let the throughlines in her musical catalog write over her songwriting — for instance, she pulls the booming bassline from “Birth in Reverse” from 2016’s St. Vincent into “Fear The Future,” but she softens her voice and introduces a contrasting falsetto.

Additionally, within Masseduction itself, St. Vincent traverses the gauntlet of emotions in Lorde-esque fashion. But unlike Lorde, the instrumentation fluctuates more frequently, with side-by-side tracks skipping between facets of St. Vincent’s sound in a way that exaggerates the tonal differences between the songs.

From pop synths and the loud, minor-key choruses in “Los Ageless,” St. Vincent moves into “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” a sparse, lyrical piano ballad that brings the listener over a topical and emotional step — from a song best described by the scratchy lyric, “‘I’m a monster and you’re my sacred cow,” to a song defined by melancholy atmosphere. A similar volume-shift can be found between “Savior,” another beat-driven tune, and the album’s other ballad, “New York.”

While this doesn’t seem like it would work well, it very simply does.

This is possibly due to the way St. Vincent constructs her songs. Album reviews often consider each song contextualized as a part of a whole, but sometimes the arc of each specific track matters too.

The last minute of “Los Ageless” brings the song down from the emphatic kick drums and strong chorus into an echoey outro that fades into “New York” with only a hiccup of a pause. This allows St. Vincent to switch between subjects and sounds, covering a range that keeps the listener engaged without jarring them in a way that compels them to skip a track or switch to another artist in the middle of the album.

In essence, Masseduction works rather like a nesting doll — it fits snugly with the established and unestablished sounds of her past work, each song transitioning smoothly between the ones around it, each operating well on its own. And in a sense, this is the best one can hope for with an album — the way it sounds vaguely familiar but not repetitive, the way it exists comfortably as both a collection of parts and a whole.

So whether you’re the kind of listener that wants to pull certain songs from an album or the kind that wants to listen to it ordered and paced-out all at once, with Masseduction, St. Vincent gives you the option to do either — but persuades you to love listening to her album as a whole.

Olivia Jerram writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on experiencing art through other people. Contact her at [email protected].