As hinted at in my last review, this album was actually randomly rolled for my last review, but I replaced it with “Masseduction” since that was the original release of the same songs, one year earlier, and it just made sense to grok that first. Now we return to regularly scheduled programming, and that record’s reinterpretation.
Disc 1207 is… Masseducation
Artist: St. Vincent
Year of Release: 2018
What’s up with the Cover? Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), stripped down, just like this album’s production. Lest you think this means you can presume to know her better, she presents the photo out of focus as a reminder that like any artist she shows exactly what she means to show, and nothing more.
How I Came To Know It: If you’ve read my previous review you will know how much I loved “Masseduction” so when I found out St. Vincent had done an acoustic version I snapped it up as soon as it hit the shelves.
How It Stacks Up: I have three St. Vincent albums. It is hard to rate an album that is essentially the same songs as the last one, but since that’s the task at hand, I’ll put “Masseducation” in second place out of those three records.
Ratings: 5 stars
Just like the single ‘a’ added to this album’s title, one small change in the approach to a record can result in a whole new way of seeing it. On “Masseducation” the change is the switch from electric to acoustic, and the arrangement from multiple instruments down to a single piano.
That pianist is Thomas Bartlett, aka “Doveman” (because apparently everyone has to have a stage name these days). Over two days he and Clark sat in a studio apartment and recorded the songs from her 2017 album “Masseduction.” His task: take that album’s brilliant mix of techno, rock and pop and boil it down into arrangements for a single piano. Lots of songs are originally written just sitting at the piano anyway, so the task isn’t all that complicated, but making the result sound like something more than a muted demo is where things get tricky.
Fortunately, Bartlett is more than up to the task. There are times where he plays the tune straight - no chaser, times when he adds in flourishes that create additional emotional depth and times where he just takes his hands off the keys and lets St. Vincent’s vocals stand alone. Most importantly, he has a good understanding of where each approach fits best.
The task is also daunting for St. Vincent. “Masseducation” leaves no room for subterfuge and no production to hide any shortcomings behind. In response, she delivers a powerful and fearless vocal performance. Her rich tone fills in all the space left between the piano notes, and often carries the song on their own. I was reminded favourably of great pop vocalists like Lady Gaga or Sheryl Crow who undertook similarly brave vocal performances. I’ve always been impressed by St. Vincent’s talents as a guitar player and as a songwriter but “Masseducation” gave me a whole new appreciation for her talents as a singer.
Along the way, she also shows the beautiful bones of these songs. Even a song like “Pills” which has a heavily produced approach on its original presentation still works with just a piano and voice. A good song can be played in any style, and these are some of the best songs you will find, pop or otherwise.
All of the themes I explored on my review of “Masseduction” are present here as well, with the same thoughtful exploration of sex, desire and vulnerability. However, the stories feel more raw without the sugarcoating of a pop backbeat or guitar treatment. “Savior” is even more intensely sexual and “Hang On Me” is even more wan and heart-worn than ever.
My only minor quibble is on “New York” where St. Vincent shifts a part of the melody to make it drop down where the original version soars. That said, the change also made me see the song in a new light. The theme of apology and regret is consistent, but in the original there is a manic quality to the experience. Here, it leaves you feeling empty and unsatisfied. It is a reminder that the same source of grief can manifest itself in a lot of different, but related emotions.
The album also rearranges the song order. The songs that launch “Masseduction” (“Hang on Me” and “Pills”) are flipped to the end of “Masseducation”. The introspective and comparatively quiet “Slow Disco” is moved from the end to the first track. This reminds the listener that this will be a more intimate journey. It also has the effect of changing the overall emotional journey from manic doubt through to quiet uncertainty into the reverse.
On my first listen I thought the record would end up just shy of 5 stars; I didn’t love some of the jazzy elements in Bartlett’s piano playing. However, as I let the record sink in I realized it was having just as much impact on me as “Masseduction” did, but in a subtly different way. I was even finding different favourites as a result (“Young Lover” in particular benefits from the new treatment). Songs this good, and performances this powerful can’t be denied.
And so we sit with the same record getting 5 stars all over again, only this time it is completely different. Thanks for the education, Ms. Clark.
Best tracks: All tracks, but in particular Slow Disco, Savior, Masseduction, Smoking Section, Young Lover, Happy Birthday Johnny, Pills, Hang on Me. Yes, the other 4 are great too.