Masseduction begins with a small movie, maybe German, definitely low budget and probably based on a two-hander play. It compels and defines and unsettles.
This film is a psychological exercise filmed in clear detail, twin screen. In one a body is beneath the sheet, obscured, the phone’s light visible. In the next screen there’s tense upright body, face smudged by lack of sleep and excess of alcohol. And it’s shot always in mid-distance so you can’t escape into space but stay just far enough back from the intensity to breathe.
Hang On Me murmurs along in programmed beats and a mix of scattered percussion and synthesised strings, set beneath Annie Clark’s voice which feels smaller, a beat or two away from crumbling, but not crushed. That last bit is important because this isn’t a film/song of despair exactly, though existential fear is definitely present.
Acknowledging to her partner, who is “probably sleeping”, that yes, “I admit I’ve been drinking” – later granting that “I know you hate my hysterics, I promised this time is different” - the central character nonetheless will keep talking because “I got this thing I keep thinking” and really, that’s not going to stop because “the void is back and unblinking”.
The void is the emptiness of knowing that “I cannot stop the air plane from crashing and we circled down from the sky … I cannot stop the taxicab from crashing and only lovers will survive”.
(To set this in context, a later song, this time with harder synths, later period Madonna rhythm and helicopter guitars, declares “I fear the future”, and it’s never clear whether that is the world’s, the city’s or the relationship’s.)
In the face of this helplessness, the solution is to “hang on me, hang on me … cause you and me, we’re not meant for this world”. You and me against the world! They can’t break us. And if they try we’ll go together.
That’s love isn’t it? That’s commitment, right? What do you mean it’s obsessive and dangerously needy? Hey, why are you stepping away? Come back. Come back, now!
Hang On Me is done in two minutes 48 seconds but the impact of its emotional scarring and self-centred laser focus lasts for the next 38 minutes of Masseduction, whether the songs bounce at you or crawl through thickets to reach you.
This is an album rich with the many sides of desire and need, that encompasses elevation and subsequent – or sometimes concurrent – destruction. And it stares into that void without blinking.
The album’s opening scene is played out later in different characters but the emotional claustrophobia stays, the smell of desperation clinging to you and the accumulated losses staining your rap sheet.
Take the single which preceded Clark’s new album, New York. A piano ballad that keeps straining to break out into a gospel rouser or a song to dance down Avenue Of The Americas, it has ambivalence and need, black humour and displacement, love and selfishness.
“New York isn’t New York without you love, too few of our old crew left on Astor/So if I trade our hood for some Hollywood, well, you’re the only motherfucker in the city who would … forgive me”.
The play on creepiness and obsessiveness, and self-destruction, is strong within Young Lover which has the form of a late ‘70s Blondie song: quasi disco beat, new wave keyboards, grander than you realise melody – and in the background, heroin.
“I found you in the bath tub with your clothing on/Oh so what? Your mother did a number so I get gloves of rubber, clean up the spill”, she sings before the danse macabre beckons and she is begging her lover to wake up. “Young lover I wish that I was your drug/Young lover I miss the taste of your tongue … I wish love was enough.”
But what is enough anyway? The restless avoider of gloom in the dark-shaded disco of Los Ageless (a city where “winter never comes [and] mothers milk their young”) describes herself as “I’m a monster and you’re my sacred cow” and no one should expect that to work out any better second time around, let alone third or fourth time. And you know there’ll be a third and fourth time.
In Pills, sung in its first half in a staccato bounce as if a hippie family choir has both Laurie Anderson and a brass band on stage with them (harking back to the album she made with David Byrne) Clark rattles through the myriad uses for father’s/mother’s little helper: “pills to wake, pills to sleep … pills to work, pills to think … pills to grow, pills to shrink … pills to fuck, pills to eat”.
Behind these 13 examples of interior corruption, Masseduction has energy and coiled power aplenty – and some more of not just Clark’s great guitar playing but her ability to shape new sounds. There’s a sly call to dance often enough too, all in the manner of a distorted ultimate party soundtrack.
The marvellous kink in that is that the party is spread over a big house and some of those rooms are hosting sub-sub-moods, whether it’s a song such as Savior, which is a kind of ‘50s blues grafted onto 90s R&B, or Smoking Section, which is a loaded torch song with its guts slowly dissected.
When you come across these songs, there’s no avoiding the essence, like turning a vase and seeing the crumbled, dead flowers hidden by the still vibrant greenery.
But then as Hang On Me told us right from the start, this is an unsettled place that holds your gaze even as you squirm. St Vincent country, in other words.