“The void is back and unblinking,” Annie Clark sings with icy vulnerability above a tendril of a synth note that floats in waves beneath Masseduction‘s opening song “Hang on Me.” On Clark’s fifth studio album as St. Vincent, the virtuosic indie-rock singer and guitarist dives further into the void, obliterating herself with sex, drugs and power. This album, a partnership with top pop whisperer Jack Antonoff, is a masterpiece of confrontational intimacy, and Clark lays herself bare as only a woman who has seen her life suddenly become tabloid fodder can.
Clark is no stranger to evoking the visceral. Her twisty, distorted 2014 self-titled LP was a tight, colorful leap forward, much showier than her intimate 2011 breakthrough, Strange Mercy. St. Vincent was released around the time the deeply private Clark began a high-profile relationship with super model and tabloid fixture Cara Delevingne.
Clark bites back at the gawkers and curious lurkers, even baiting them with a clandestine feature from Delevingne under the name “Kid Monkey” who sings “Pills to wake/Pills to sleep/Pills, pills, pills every day of the week” like she’s taunting on a playground. Later, Clark teases listeners with the cheekily titled “Young Lover,” a brutal bass-bumper where she relays a tale of said young lover being found in a bathtub after overdosing on – drum roll, please – pills.
It is the most direct Clark has ever been with her lyricism, savagely cutting to the core of her feelings and her own mythology. On “New York,” one of the year’s finest singles, she thrives in simplicity, pining for the loss of “the only motherfucker in the city who” could handle her. In “Los Ageless,” she finds herself lost in Hollywood’s labyrinth of “sunset superstars” and “lost sages” she finds at the bar above a menacing, gothic New Wave beat, losing all sense of her East Coast nostalgia.
Clark’s more tender moments cut through some of the album’s carnal darkness. The sweet piano ballad “Happy Birthday, Johnny” feels almost inappropriate to listen to, like you’re intruding on a private conversation between Clark and the troubled subject, “wherever you are,” as she sings. On “Slow Disco,” a mess of strings coalesce with one of her more understated vocal performances, as she offers a slow dance with a ghost.
Clark’s campy expedition through the void ends on a delicate goodbye. It’s a Rocky Horror Picture Show “Rose Tint My World”/”Don’t Dream It, Be It” medley of an exit. Clark embodies both theatrical tragedy and hope, jumping into the pool with her demons and saviors for “Smoking Section,” a quietly heartbreaking tune that dares you to jump in with her. “And sometimes I go to the edge of my roof/And I think I’ll jump just to punish you,” she dejectedly sings in the deepest part of her register. Here she is again, a “casualty hanging on from the balcony” as she self-describes in “Sugarboy,” knowingly dangling her pain for the hungry audience. “It’s not the end,” she repeats ad infinitum at the song’s own end. Surely, it’s only the beginning of the story Clark is willing to tell.