St. Vincent, “Masseduction” (Loma Vista)

If there’s a rap against St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, it’s that she can be an arty, icy singer who keeps listeners at arm’s length. Her inventive songs prompt distant admiration but not necessarily deep connection. But she drops some of the emotional armor on her fifth studio album, which comes off as not only one of her most ambitious works, but also her most transparent.

With co-producer Jack Antonoff (who is coming off projects with Lorde and Taylor Swift), Clark finds new levels of expressiveness as a singer, moving from vacant burned-out whispers to upper-range fragility, teasing femme fatale to sad-eyed lady in the land of the high-rises. Her guitar playing remains inventive, a throwback to the Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar guitar-that-doesn’t-always-sound-like-a-guitar tone displayed on David Bowie’s ’70s albums. Antonoff may have buffed a few of the hooks, but if this is a pop album, it’s on Clark’s own demanding terms: drama in service of vulnerability.

With “Hang on Me,” she throws open the door to an album that sounds like a trip through some of the seediest neighborhoods in her adopted hometown of New York, with a side trip to Los Angeles. In a voice that sounds like it’s on the verge of breaking down, Clark wonders, “Can I stop the aeroplane from crashing?” over strings swooning and bells ringing, as if quietly dreading the carnage to come. It arrives in the form of “Pills,” a glam-rocking ode to excess with ripping guitar; the electro-rock of the title song, which quotes Charles Mingus and Bowie and weighs the price of running with the glamour crowd and the death disco of “Sugarboy.” Things start to unravel in “Los Ageless,” a memoir to the land of a thousand dances and “the last days of the Sunset superstars.”

“Happy Birthday, Johnny” mourns one of the casualties. It’s a potentially hokey piano ballad that Clark’s narrator turns devastatingly personal; she points the finger at herself for leaving a family member adrift.

The sex fantasy games of “Savior” dissolve into unanswered pleas, and the album slides away from pills ’n’ thrills glitziness into deepening introspection. “New York” plays like a eulogy to a love affair or to Bowie, or perhaps both. “Fear the Future” unfolds with some of Clark’s boldest guitar playing, a big mass of chords spilling into a psychedelic midsection.

“C’mon, sir, just give me the answer,” Clark pleads. It’s a plaintive demand tucked inside a guitar maelstrom. After that, the only place to go is inward, and Clark does so memorably with a gorgeously sad string interlude and then the album’s most harrowing songs: the last waltz “Slow Disco” and the suicide-note “Smoking Section.” In the end, Clark’s swimming to the surface. “It’s not the end,” she repeats, even as her voice slips away.

GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune


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