Stripped down, bare, intimate, and revelatory, are all words that describe St. Vincent’s newest album MassEducation — a piano and vocals-only reimagining of her 2017 release MASSEDUCTION. This new foray imbues her songs with fresh meaning and showcases the singing range of an artist who may be best known for her virtuosic guitar skills.
The ability to re-release an album without many production additives and still have it be impactful and hauntingly beautiful is a testament to the strength of the lyrics, St. Vincent’s artistic dexterity and the performances by St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) and pianist Doveman (Thomas Bartlett). Doveman, who has worked with Yoko Ono, Sufjan Stevens and Florence and the Machine helps propel MassEducation to new heights.
On the 2017 Masseduction song “Savior,” Clark’s vocals slide through scales effortlessly and feature a bluesy guitar progression while the lyrics examine the effects of role play in a relationship. This exploration of what is feels like to create a closer connection with a partner through costumes, ranging from nurse to cop, is done in a hilarious, yet sardonic way, with Clark pointing out that “none of this shit fits.” In the stripped-down ballad version, as the guitar fades to give way to a staccato piano accompaniment, Clark’s realizations still retain some of their humor but also take on a more morose and plaintive tone in the piano version. The song crescendos, with heavy, almost Rachmaninoff-like use of staccatos courtesy of Doveman, as Clark repeats “please.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the 2018 album is that it ends with “Hang on Me” instead of starting with it. “Hang on Me” originally featured a slightly fuzzed-over vocal section heavy on back bass that created a feeling of disconnect, mirroring the theme of the song. With only a piano accompanying the elegiac song, the lyrics “Yeah, so hang on me / ’Cause you and me / We’re not meant for this world” sees Clark take on a seemingly resistant tone while portraying the dejected feelings that accompanies the slipping away of a partner. Toward the beginning of the song, Clark sings “Yeah, I admit I been drinkin’/ The void is back and unblinkin’.” The unblinking void is one of the main themes explored on the album, specifically the various ways people attempt to cope with it: pills, moving cities (New York to “Los Ageless”), role playing in denim skirts and leather and dancing a slow disco. The new album’s inconclusive closing attempts to understand the pains of love lost.
“Young Lover” chronicles an achingly painful but vivid moment, as Clark finds her young lover unresponsive and passed out on a bathroom floor in Paris and she worries that they might have overdosed. The song boasts one of the most sparse piano arrangements until the bridge when it crescendos in a flurry of notes. As Clark repeatedly exclaims “young lover,” her pitch continues higher and higher with a fury, but ends the song with a despondent lower register, an almost spoken “young lover.” This song builds upon the issue explored in “Savior,” as the chorus of “No, I, young lover, I’m begging you please to wake up / Young lover, I wish that I was your drug” shows how Clark struggles with trying to be everything for someone else.
Not all songs are aided with the piano format of MassEduction, particularly “Pills,” which examines people’s reliance on pills and their ubiquitous prevalence in the world: “Pills to wake, pills to sleep /Pills, pills, pills every day of the week/ Pills to walk, pills to think.” The song was slightly dull and not as mesmerizing as the original, which featured a heavy synth-backed guitar tune, a mocking chorus (courtesy of guest vocalist Cara Delevingne) and a phenomenal sax coda solo from Kamasi Washington, which helped make the song distinctive and thrilling.
Additionally, “Slow Disco” was not enhanced with the slower pace. Over the summer, Clark released an electronic reimagining of “Slow Disco” called “Fast Slow Disco” that is by far the superior of the three versions. With its ’80s era Erasure atmosphere, that version song became a rousing, sweaty East Village-esque dance floor jam that is more infectious and fun than the latest iteration.
St. Vincent places artistry and emotional honesty at the forefront of her confessional album. Though it is a bit early, Billboard and other music magazines have predicted some Grammy buzz for Clark’s 2017 MASSEDUCTION in the category of Album of the Year, making MassEducation even more timely. Regarding MassEducation, Clark told Vulture, “Here’s my heart, here’s some beauty, I hope you like it.” The album is comfortable laying it all on the line in a stunning way, and cements Clark as one of music’s most multifaceted and capable artists.
Ashley Davila is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached [email protected].