If you’re wondering where Annie Clark’s head is at, it’s not hard to dig it out from the name of her upcoming tour: Fear the Future. On her fantastically nervy new album MASSEDUCTION, the musician pseudonymously known as St. Vincent is a restless, jittery pop star for the age of anxiety; an electric hook girl circling the apocalypse.
MASS offers 13 soundtracks for sleepless nights and social-media voyeurs, self-medicating and slow discos. Glitchy opener “Hang on Me” blisters and blooms into a haunted 3 a.m. anthem; the spiky, shiny-bright “Pills” (featuring her model-actress ex Cara Delevingne) counts down the many virtues of pharmaceuticals: “Pills to f—, pills to think, pills pills pills for the family.” The robo-sexual title track, with its moaning, strangled refrain — “I can’t turn off what turns me on” — sounds like a Patrick Nagel painting come to life; digital-witness rock opera “Sugarboy” swoons and slithers; “Savior” plays with BDSM intimacy and role-play clichés (“You dress me in a nun’s black habit/ Hail Mary pass, cuz you know I’ll grab it”).
There’s an ’80s-neon-meets-aughties-existentialism to it all, like the gleaming thought bubbles of a Robert Palmer backup dancer high on synthesizers, pedal steel, and the collected works of Marshall McLuhan. Sometimes those lyrical obsessions threaten to slide toward glibness (newsflash: L.A. is a strange, predatory place; also, absolute narcissism corrupts absolutely). But Clark is way too intuitive, and too human, not to pull herself back from the brink. Many of the record’s best moments are actually its most tender: the lovely, elegiac “New York,” the wry relationship autopsy “Young Lover,” the crooked lullaby “Happy Birthday Johnny.” (Is he the same “Prince Johnny” and “John” from past albums? In a recent BuzzFeed interview, she pointedly wouldn’t say).
If there’s an easy way to live in the world, MASS hasn’t found it. “Am I thinking what everyone’s thinking?/ I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave,” she asks ruefully on the penultimate ballad, and contemplates early-exit scenarios on the epic, disorienting closer “Smoking Section”: the rogue spark from a lit cigarette, a loaded pistol, a rooftop leap into traffic. Instead she stays, insisting “it’s not the end” over and over in a quavering falsetto. Five studio albums in, it feels more like another new beginning, and pretty close to a masterpiece. A–