Sex Is Never Just Sex on St. Vincent's 'Masseduction'
The album travels the path of seduction to its messy existential aftermath and how one can possibly move forward from that carnage.
Photo by Mat Hayward/WireImage
Fucking is never just fucking. In Bluets, author Maggie Nelson writes, "Fucking leaves everything as it is." Fucking is not love-making or sex; it's visceral, immediate, and cataclysmic. It can be self-destructive; a necessary implosion to start over. Fucking is one part of something bigger and confusing. Emotional gore and (lots of) sex are at the heart of St. Vincent's newest oozing triumph, Masseduction. Sex and desire are apparent from the ass out in hot pink tights cover art (not St. Vincent but her friend Carlotta) to the album's title (pronounced mass seduction) to Clark's scintillating lyrics like a contemporary Anaïs Nin over pelvic-thrust-inducing-guitar-riffs. It's titillating but more provocation, like a smirk and a kick rolled into one—an invitation that says I dare you and I want this. Emotionally fatalistic moves feel so good.
Yes, Masseduction is remarkably more in the pop lane than her previous work with how-the-hell-is-he-doing-all-of-these-records super producer Jack Antonoff at the helm. It's glam rock and synth, too; a collage of all the sexiest rock beings inspiring Clark, including a hint of Freddie Mercury drama mixed up with Marc Bolan. Masseduction's strength, though, is thematically, which is best said in the album's title track: "I can't turn off what turns me on." Masseduction is hedonistic and investigates and leans into the theory: what happens if I give in, blowing it all up in the process, to start over again? Destruction can occur. It's not a new thought: rock 'n' roll's is built upon the dumb, sometimes satisfying, things humans have done to themselves. Clark's Masseduction is a refreshing look at desire and subsequent emotional wreckage. It asks us to travel the path of seduction and fucking to its messy existential aftermath and see how we can possibly move forward from that carnage.
Clark mentioned in an extensive profile with The New Yorker in August that this is her gloomiest record in her discography thus far. "It's all about sex and drugs and sadness," she said. During the album's rollout, St. Vincent setup… meta interviews (an "interview kit") about the record and she answered the question of what does seduction means to her. "Seduction is when the invitation is better than the party itself," she says plainly. And while the answers to these interviews may be playfully (and rightly) poking at the thinness of contemporary music journalism, that particular answer holds some weight. Seduction, at least the way we hear it on this record, is immediately satisfying because what happens afterward is potentially more emotionally catastrophic.
On "Pills," Clark is playfully destructive—adlib moans, lyrics about pill consumption, giving head, going to bed, and getting back onstage. It's indulgement; a debaucherous, upbeat track with extremely dark subtext. The gentle guitar strum before Kamasi Washington's mournful sax cues up is the song's comedown. Nothing can stay that high forever. It's the first instance we hear of the true consequential darkness that comes after recklessness. That sentiment plays out for the rest of the album; careening up with temporal satisfaction before plunging down again into reality often in the form of forgiveness, from both whomever Clark's narrator is (her?) or unknown love interest(s.) The album's title track gets us to go up again, listing characters and things—her narrator's turn-ons—like a checklist: Lolita, punks, nuns stress smoking. Clark warbles "I don't turn off what turns me on," not asking for permission for her desires—consuming it all as it comes.
With "Hang on Me," a poetic and co-dependent love song with the lyrics, "cause you and me/ we're not meant for this world," she is like a seer. Miles above the action, looking down, predicting what kind will come to be. "Songs are like prophecies. They can be stronger than you are," she told The New Yorker. Fizzy, echoing drum beats hover behind her almost suffering sounding vocals. "I can't stop the taxi cab from crashin'/ And only lovers will survive," she croons. "Slow Disco," too, has Clark proclaiming, "There's blood in my ears and a fool in the mirror/ And the pain of mistakes couldn't get any clearer." She is chaotic and messy, an agent of kink with "You dress me up in a nurse's outfit/ It rides and sticks to my thighs and my hips" on "Savior." The track is the album's climax. Clark snarls, almost, on the song featuring a plucky guitar riff. It drips with sex but the song is also incredibly self-aware of what, with prior tracks' debauchery, what happens when seduction leads to dependence and when desire is no longer temporary but someone else's heart. Clark's evangelical sounding refrain of "but then you say 'Please'" is an ache, a desperation. Clark does find power in her vulnerability after the desire, the fucking, on "New York," conceding almost as she sings the "only motherfucker in the city who'd forgive me."
Clark's Masseduction is Bacchanalian, luxurious and welcoming; a fever dream of epic pop proportions. It's seductive and climactic. While desire and sex are refuge, they are also a place to implode. Real consequences, so often very emotional ones, happen there and Clark isn't afraid to show us the immediate satisfaction and its aftermath. And that's important because it's human: not pretty or "sexy" in a traditional sense but messy and real. We don't always know how to treat sex as sex, an act, without the addition of love or lust or any emotional projection. "What could be better than love, than love, than love?" Clark posits to us on the album's final song, "Smoking Section." She doesn't give us the answers after the dust settles. She only goes through it and we go through it with her.
Sarah MacDonald is an Assistant Editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.