MassEducation by St. Vincent Review
“But if they only knew the real version of me
Only you know the secrets, the swamp, and the fear
What happened to blood? Our family?
Annie, how could you do this to me?”
-“Happy Birthday, Johnny”
How the fuck did this happen? How could nothing but a piano and a voice take a record this far? How could such a spur-of-the-moment concept be so flawless? How could such a world abuzz with post-satire rock and mass media white noise be cut to size by such a sparse record? How could Annie Clark and Thomas Barlett top a record that already topped best-of-2017-lists left and right?
With an equally sparse equation that’s how. Just three steps: add piano, add vocals and subtract all else. Bartlett, the artist also known as Doveman, reworks and reduces synthesizers and riffs to a flourishing left hand on He hangs a heavy right hand across chords and the baritone end, providing tonal counterpoint to Clark’s voice on “Masseduction” and “Slow Dance.” And then, after toying on either side of the keys, he does both for “Savior,” “Sugarboy” and “Los Ageless.” Clark herself reaches for notes just as high if not higher than on MASSEDUCTION without any of the studio trickery and excess instrumentation to fill in the gaps. On “Savior” and “New York” and “Young Lover” and “Happy Birthday Johnny,” the St. Vincent mystique is stripped naked and raw, even breaking in endearment while it pleads for sweet release. Bartlett’s hands largely step back to give Clark even more space in a New York City studio that creates an acoustic more poignant than what was achieved on the preceding record and allows the poetry of her lyrics to hit harder than Mayweather hook—verses such as outro for “Slow Disco,” the ultimate question on “Happy Birthday Johnny,” and the erstwhile muddled “Young Lover” chorus are given space and rhythm to knock motherfuckers out, left and right:
“Young lover, I’m begging you please to wake up
Young lover, I wish that I was your drug
Young lover, I miss the taste of your tongue
Young lover, I wish love was enough, enough, enough.”
And while she doesn’t use all of that white space, the recordings are mastered so well that she never needs to. Her voice roams the dead middle to the top of the stereo, while Barlett’s piano filters under, left, right and behind, crafting a solid bed of sound to support Clark’s vocal warbles and power notes, while still leaving enough unsaid for listeners to imagine a threadbare setting which sounds as if it lived life once as an underground jazz bar in the Forties. Hell, sometimes Clark even smokes like a hipster’s cigarette, but the resulting record might as well have been recorded in a high-rise apartment overlooking metropolitan madness, it’s so removed from any background racket. All the traffic needed is contained in Bartlett’s smooth tempo changes, timing the intersection lights like a road magician speeding up, slowing down, leaving space and then guarding it for expected emergency stops. MassEducation may be a little leadfooted at times, but still never as savage as her biochemical cousin.
Because MASSEDUCTION was an acidic affair; a lovechild between late-nineties P.J. Harvey and Thin White Duke Bowie, a toxic relationship on the level of getting freaky with a planetwide collective consciousness, a commentary intertwining the personal with the sociopolitical on a level where asking for just what the hell St. Vincent might be referring to isn’t frowned upon, but required. Because in the multiple-choice test, the MASSEDUCTION lyrics were a run of: value systems, addiction, sexuality and fame, gender norms, all of the above, mental health, sexuality, sexuality again, all of the above again, sexuality and addiction, mental health once more and then all of the above tying off the record like a little cute red ribbon that wraps together the everything-all-at-once clusterfuck of feelings that anyone under-40 knows all too intimately. Forget your millennial conditions, it’s called being young and confused; it’s that anarchic wont for freedom bristling under the calm, cruel smile of social norms and mores. And St. Vincent’s consequent fifth long-player in the solo canon veered between both tones and emotions, switching from icy to hot faster than Shaquille O’Neal can sell it and flailing from elation to depression quicker than Ronald Weasley can believe it. You could have sat there and done fuck-all but close your eyes and listened, dissolved right into that weird extradimensional eyelid space, descended into the album concept like Juliet falls for Romeo, not moved an inch and then: you would feel like you’ve ridden the most insane roller-coaster possible. Headphones not recommended, but required. The end result was you sitting there, forty-summat minutes later with insides flipped upside down and out. MASSEDUCTION was just that addictive, just that wild, just that seductive, just that good.
And MassEducation does it one better. Because the former requires more alert ears, more involvement for the ounces of enjoyment from the fuzzy coating whereas the latter plays a more accessible angle; gently gliding from the digital phonogram to eardrum and spirit. Bartlett’s New York parlor piano recalls the dining room setting of Carole King’s Tapestry while Clark’s vocals and lyrics squirm in the dark subject manner of a Tori Amos cover. Hell, Kurt Cobain once described Amos’ cover of “Smells Like Teenage Spirit” the perfect breakfast music: relaxed but weighted, something that once given the nudge, pushes momentum into the morning. MassEducation does exactly that. The result is a long-player that is more mature, more earnest and more honest in its aspirations while still containing the same dynamic range without all the violent emotional steering. MassEducation doesn’t take the hand and wring its owner like a rag doll child from place to place to place. There’s enjoyment to be had in the build-up taking its time—the record is one track shorter but three minutes longer—and unlike MASSEDUCTION, there’s no unknown force driving someone to repeat listen, no lyric hidden by post-production malarkey that needs be deciphered. You can simply put it on your sleepy Saturday and let it run over and over and over again just because it sounds that pleasant but serious, just because it is that relaxed but profound, just because it is that easy but no less gripping.
It may not explain for others why this record earns such esteem above its cousin, but it boils down to just because it goes well with a glass of wine and a book. What else would I need at that point? To listen again, again, again to this drug of a record is enough, enough, enough.
“Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?”
Album Artist: St. Vincent
Producer: St. Vincent with Thomas Bartlett
Label: Loma Vista
Producer: Piano Rock
- “Slow Disco”
- “Fear the Future”
- “Smoking Section”
- “Los Ageless”
- “New York”
- “Young Lover”
- “Happy Birthday, Johnny”
- “Hang on Me”