Whether crafting baroque art-rock or flashy electro-pop, stripped-down performances have always been an integral, if overlooked, element of Annie Clark’s output as St. Vincent. She covered Jackson Browne’s “These Days” on her 2006 debut EP, but her muted live version from 2007 surpasses it; without a cushion of woodwinds, Clark’s 2009 acoustic rendition of Actor opener “The Strangers” became a hypnotic reverie. Such recordings rested off the beaten path, but consistently displayed Clark’s affinity for musical intimacy.
All this makes MassEducation, Clark’s spare, album-length reimagining of last year’s world-conquering Masseduction, an unexpected though not necessarily surprising entry in the St. Vincent catalog. But unlike the acoustic albums that have proliferated in the post-MTV Unplugged era — where artists have turned down the distortion to offer a patina of prestige, if not prestige itself — MassEducation feels more deliberate.
On Masseduction, the cascading synths, unrelenting drum machines, and plaintive guitars Clark recorded with hot pop producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde) seemed inseparable from her melodies and lyrics — even if she emphasized in interviews that the tunes were the most intimate and realized of her career. Her characterization of the material was prescient: It’s tough to imagine another St. Vincent album with songs malleable enough to be stylistically translated en masse in this way.
Much credit belongs to Thomas Bartlett (Yoko Ono, The National), better known as Doveman, whose rippling MassEducation piano parts hover in a liminal space between Chopin’s dense classical technicality and Herbie Hancock’s percussive jazz. Take “Fear the Future.” With a few tweaks, Clark’s clanging Masseduction version could fit on a Nine Inch Nails record; here, Bartlett alternates between arpeggios and staccato chords for a product that practically levitates. Elsewhere, he turns the ominous glam of “Los Ageless” into a simmering cabaret. The arrangements are riveting reinterpretations, not rote retreads.
But the instrumentals primarily serve to undergird Clark’s vocals. Exposed and unadorned, her pipes shine like never before — and infuse these old songs with fresh intensity, at times imbuing them with entirely new character. As the opening of Masseduction‘s second side, “Savior” originally stood out for its playfulness, as Clark sang about ill-fitting sex costumes and a coy guitar part flitted behind her. It’s the second track on MassEducation — Clark resequenced the album to mixed results — and produces an early gut-punch, its emphasis shifted from its punchy verses to the song’s devastating coda, where she repeatedly draws out “Please” in a painful cry. Like the best MassEducation moments, it’s simultaneously of a piece with the Masseducation version and totally different.
Not all the renditions work so well. The impish art-pop of the original “Pills” sounded like Clark had teleported Willy Wonka into Pfizer’s R&D lab, and the MassEducation instrumental is comparatively one-dimensional. (Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s solo is also sorely missed.) And though originally piano-driven, without its bed of synths and drum machines, “New York” sounds more incomplete than naked. Clark’s inclusion of every Masseduction track makes sense, but might’ve been unnecessary.
Should Clark rebrand yet again on the next St. Vincent album — likely, given her track record — it’s entirely possible she’ll continue the maximalist trend she began with Masseduction and 2014’s St. Vincent, leaving MassEducation as a curious outlier in her increasingly grandiose oeuvre. But it’s no less ambitious for its simplicity. Rather, MassEducation brings Clark’s acoustic inclinations from YouTube’s annals to wax grooves, and serves as a testament to her versatile songwriting and remarkable vocal strength. B+