St Vincent's stripped-down MassEducation offers a chance for an intimate reading of her impeccable songcraft
St Vincent's MassEducation takes the songs from last year's neon and latex themed Masseduction and flips them into unplugged dirges that allow listeners to marvel at the underlying songcraft.
Annie Clark's guitar skills have always drawn praise, often without a mention of her impeccable songcraft. On MassEducation, a reimagining of last year's Masseduction (there's an 'a' that's been added for the less than eagle-eyed), her voice takes front and centre, though Thomas Bartlett's piano skills sometimes jostle, and win, the battle for supremacy on individual songs.
The album takes the songs from last year's neon and latex themed Masseduction and flips them into unplugged dirges that allow listeners to marvel at the underlying songcraft.
Regular listeners of St Vincent, Clark's chosen recording moniker, will no doubt already know about her music's raw pull. While her last two albums have had a performative aspect to them that has allowed Clark to inhabit and exhibit different personas, her debut and it's follow up relied on her dark but observant lyrics, stunning voice and angelic face which served as her album covers.
MassEducation then is a way to combine the two, stripping an existing album to its core, and exchanging Clark's signature guitar skills and fancy fretwork for something more introspective and shorn of artifice.
On the piano, the songs take on a somber air, not only for the way in which each note seems to hang for a beat longer than necessary, but also for the unexpected way in which the music pairs with Clark's voice — which is supple, evocative and pushes listeners to appreciate the level of control she has over her vocal chords. Most apparent on 'Savior', the deep, low backing track wrestles with the singing, though each ultimately compliments the other. A little over halfway through the track, Clark's soprano kicks in as she sings "please", allowing the word to undulate and flow like a river, creating melody with her voice and nothing else.
On this album, the tracklist for the music has been changed, and for the most part, the songs flow into each other. Bartlett's piano sometimes lilts and at other times struts, but each song is individual and tethered by Clark's voice. On "Sugarboy" there’s an undercurrent of foreboding, but like so many songs on the album, its shifts and churns, equal parts brassy and bold, while underpinned by Bartlett’s agile key-playing. Conversely, “New York”, which associates the city with a former love, devastates. Taken as a song about a city, and home, in flux its Clark at her most confessional, with the piano scoring lyrics like, “New York isn’t New York without you, love/Too few of our old crew left on Astor.”
In a note the accompanied the announcement of the album, Clark says about the process, "We neither rehearsed nor spoke about how to approach any song, but rather played 2-3 live takes, picked the best one, and trusted the spirit of the moment. It was fast. Intuitive. Discovered. Raw."
As a result, there's a homespun quality to the recordings, but also a clarity to the songs — displaying both musicians ability to craft songs that will instantly grab listeners. Technically adept, each track will be appreciated, especially by fans of last year's Masseduction. In this new recording, the lyrics and structure of each song shine, as opposed to the maximalist soundscapes that shone on Masseduction.
For an artist who can often seem to keep listeners at arm's length, this stripped-down album offers a chance for a more intimate reading of the lyrics. Using just a single piano perhaps the best thing about the album is the depth of feeling she is able to convey. It's often seemed that the costumes and themes that Clark introduces before each album release are a distraction to stop listeners from getting to know the real person behind the music. On this album, that changes and we're allowed to listen to each lyric, their careful intonation and the story every song tells. By substituting the guitar for the piano, it’s also a showcase for the versatility of St Vincent, the artist and the music she makes.
As Clark says in the letter, "two dear friends playing songs together with the kind of secret understanding one can only get through endless nights in New York City." As listeners, we're all the better for it.
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