Review: St. Vincent Sits Down At the Piano on ‘Masseducation’

Last year, Annie Clark, d.b.a. St. Vincent, released Masseduction, a jittery portrait of 21st-century angst that straddled the gap between her neurotic, intricate art-rock and alt-pop’s big hooks and intricate textures. Produced by maximalist du jour Jack Antonoff, the album was a thicket of ideas, a cri de coeur about modern problems that used sonic information overload to drive its message home. Masseducation, which Clark and pianist Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett recorded in the wake of Masseduction‘s completion, is the deep breath after the freak-out, its less dense structures allowing Clark’s compositional and vocal talents to shine.

In contrast to the process behind Masseduction, which was the culmination of years’ worth of writing and star-studded recording sessions, Clark and Bartlett (who also played on Masseduction) put together its “reimagining” in a flurry of instinctual activity: “We neither rehearsed nor spoke about how to approach any song, but rather played 2-3 live takes, picked the best one, and trusted the spirit of the moment. It was fast. Intuitive. Discovered. Raw,” Clark said in a statement earlier this month. That seat-of-the-pants energy jolts some of the reinventions: “Sugarboy” is transformed from hopped-up dancefloor chaos into a gorgeous showcase for Clark’s formidable soprano, with musical tension coming courtesy of a chewed-nails piano counterpoint; Masseduction opener “Hang On Me,” this set’s closer, flips from a come-hither beckoning to a better world into a let’s-stay-together plea. Only “Pills,” an ode to the pharmaceutical age that sounds like an unquietable mind on Masseduction, doesn’t quite land, its manic energy transmuting into something a little too manic-pixie. But otherwise, Masseducation is an object lesson in how sonic switch-ups can offer new insights into even the most idea-dense material— and listeners as well as artists can have those epiphanies.

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