Around this time last year, Annie Clark aka St Vincent released MASSEDUCTION, which even by her sky-high standards, was an exhilarating ride. It was an intensely personal, thrillingly theatrical, wild electro-pop ride. Now, she’s returned to MASSEDUCTION to revisit those songs, re-record them in a stripped-down fashion and retitled it MassEducation.
This process of ‘reimagining’ an album has been tried before, of course. Björk re-recorded all of Vulnicara with the electronics stripped out and replaced with strings, and Clark has taken a similar approach here. Instead of MASSEDUCTION’s producer Jack Antonoff’s pop sensibility, she’s teamed with Thomas Bartlett, who appeared on MASSEDUCTION and has worked with The National and Sufjan Stevens amongst others.
Recorded over a two day period in New York just after the sessions that produced the original record, it makes for an album that recalls early St Vincent, rather than the wild guitar shredding of more recent years. All the songs are strong enough to stand up in their own settings, and the tracklisting has been rejigged enough to make this seem like a totally separate record.
Los Ageless is recast as sounding more fragile and frail than before – witness the crack in Clark’s voice as she sings “how could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind?”. It’s not radically different, as it shouldn’t be, but it’s like looking at something familiar from a new angle or in a different light. Sugarboy swaps crunching guitar for twinkly piano chords but is still as frantically sensual as the original was, while Bartlett’s piano on Fear The Future is utterly thrilling and turns an already great song into an exceptional one.
Another advantage of this stripped-down formula is that it reminds you what an excellent singer Clarke can be. It’s something that’s often overlooked, given the amount of sonic tricks and visual flair that she specialises in, but her voice sounds incredibly strong when just accompanied by Bartlett’s piano. Savior (here moved to the first half of the record) is impossibly affecting, and she sounds both yearning and resigned on Hang On Me (now acting as the album’s closing track, rather than the original’s opener). Best of all is Young Lover, where it’s almost hard to hear Clark sing “wake up young lover, I thought you were dying”.
Inevitably, there are a couple of tracks that don’t quite translate to the new setting. Pills, so utterly thrilling and disorientating on MASSEDUCTION, doesn’t quite have the same propulsion in an acoustic setting, and Happy Birthday Johnny isn’t that sufficiently different from the original to stand out to much – of course, it’s still a lovely song, but it doesn’t shed any extra light onto it like some other tracks on the record.
MassEducation is that rare record that works both as a standalone album and a companion to the original. Any St Vincent fan will enjoy hearing these songs from a fresh angle, and anyone who was turned off by the original album’s electro-pop sheen may well hear something new that lures them back in. Most of all, it’s a timely reminder that Annie Clark remains one of the great talents of her generation. Her next move will be fascinating.