“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”— Joan Didion
“There’s plenty of love songs in the world,” St. Vincent said in an interview in 2014. “I don’t think I need to make my mark with those.” But 2014 was a long time ago. Since then, she’s changed her hair from a mane of grey curls to a straight, polished black. She’s dated a fashion model 10 years younger than herself. She’s started experimenting with leopard prints. She’s even, to the surprise of many in her fanbase, taken her flirtations with pop music to the next level. And this was not the only surprise to surface when Masseduction was announced last month. Standing in front of a podium crowded with seven pink microphones, St. Vincent stared straight into the camera and said of her new record that “at its best and at its core, it’s about love.”
Except it isn’t quite that simple. The lyrics are marked by a sort of pop art melancholia. The music videos are an amalgamation of liltingly beautiful color schemes and situations that appear mournful and deranged. It is clear that something is wrong. As the pieces progress, it becomes more and more apparent that the record was not born out of lasting love. “I have lost a hero,” St. Vincent sings repeatedly in the song “New York,” her head resting on a large disco ball, “I have lost a friend.”
She then returns to loss again in the chorus of “Los Ageless.” “How could anybody have you?” she sings from between her own legs, bent into a deep yoga pose while wearing a skintight, leopard-print suit in the song’s music video. “How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind, too?” In both sets of lyrics words of loss are repeated twice, and the lyrics containing the words are recurrent.
There is a logic to the repetition. When St. Vincent says “love,” she is also saying “loss.”
But what is the logic of an album about love where the love songs are about loss? Perhaps it is the simple, terrifying prediction St. Vincent makes in the bridge of the song “Pills,” that “everyone you know will all go away.” Perhaps it is the clever, obliterative word play in the title track of the album, where, in the last word, St. Vincent switches out “mass seduction,” and instead sings “mass destruction.” Perhaps it is the final song on the record, “Smoking Section,” in which St. Vincent sings “it’s not the end / it’s not the end” over and over until she has exhausted the outro and strained her voice. Who is she trying to convince? If a record about love ends in denial, what does that say about the nature of love? And if it isn’t denial, if it really isn’t the end, then why does St. Vincent sound so drained — a ghost on the vocals?
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Are we meant to believe that love is a pyrrhic victory? A question of “mass destruction?” Something mutually assured, a cause and effect relationship in which the effect is loss, that we are always reaching for grief?
Grief is a process. This is, in the English language at least, an interpretation of loss that borders on common sense. But at what point in time does the process begin? Common sense would point to the occurrence of the loss. Rarely would we consider looking before the loss, at the relationship with the thing that will eventually be lost itself. St. Vincent takes the opposite stance. It appears that she has examined the cause, the occurrence, the thing itself, while assuming that the loss is fixed, embedded, too self-evident to be mentioned. How else could she describe a record in which the narrator has lost “a hero,” “their mind,” and “you,” as being about love “at its best and at its core”? And her wording is crucial. This is not a surface level reflection on love. This is not a factory produced break-up album, or a talented, but romantically inexperienced, musician’s attempts at deep lyricism. St. Vincent is defining love for us.
She gives the sense that love is a journey. From New York to Los Angeles. From 2014 to 2017. From not making her “mark” with love songs to writing an album devoted to them. Whether or not loss is the destination of the journey is a secret St. Vincent does not ultimately reveal, but it is where the album ends up. There is the suggestion that grief is something we are always moving towards. That when we sing love songs we are really singing about loss. That the people in our lives are absences-in-waiting. That these absences are questions of destruction. That the world, following such loss, is no longer the place you knew it to be.
St. Vincent makes this evident in the first lyric of the first track released off the record, “New York isn’t New York without you love.”