Leading up to the release of MASSEDUCTION in 2017, it was impossible to avoid St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. With new videos, singles and interviews, the indie star promoted her album on a traditional pop cycle.
Upon its release, the album’s sound was more deeply rooted in pop than Clark’s following was accustomed to, and MASSEDUCTION proved to be polarizing among both fans and critics.
A year later, Clark revisits MASSEDUCTION on her new album, this time with a press run consisting of a handwritten note announcing the album, a single release and a performance at Texas music festival Austin City Limits. All this happened within a week to promote the project, less aggressively titled MassEducation.
The subdued and quiet press run suits the new album which strips away its predecessor’s bombastic arena pop. Clark returns on MassEducation with only her voice and piano. The songs are lyrically identical to MASSEDUCTION, and the piano parts will sound familiar, but Clark sees a new perspective within this organic revision of her 2017 album.
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After spending time with this release, it’s tough to see how this album works as a standalone release within St. Vincent’s strong discography. Clark believes the stripped-down tracks offer something personal that the pop sounds of MASSEDUCTION couldn’t, yet in their stripped-down states, many of the tracks sound like demos of the more polished and produced MASSEDUCTION versions.
Even the more stripped-down tracks from MASSEDUCTION do more than their MassEducation counterparts. “Happy Birthday Johnny” is more grandiose and dramatic with string accompaniments on MASSEDUCTION, whereas the track loses quite a bit of substance in its reworking.
Though it doesn’t ever quite match the same height as MASSEDUCTION, MassEducation is not a lost effort. It shows a working process and what these tracks were prior to working with prominent record producer Jack Antonoff. Tracks are vulnerable, bluesy and still insanely catchy. The lead single “Savior” loses all sexiness while conveying more pain than its counterpart.
“Los Angeles” perhaps most benefits from being stripped of its poppy tone by becoming a blues piano track. It’s not what most heard in the original, but it brings something you never realized was missing.
MassEducation also finds its strength in sequencing. The transitions sound exceptionally solid throughout, and moments from the beginning standout, such as going from the pain and loneliness of “Slow Disco” to “Savior.” This is where Clark truly succeeded in her reimagining of the record.
Ultimately, this release leaves more to be desired. It is neither a return to form for fans of St. Vincent’s other projects, and it is not a strong enough release for fans of MASSEDUCTION. It’s neither here nor there, and that’s a tough place to be as an artist as visionary and forward-thinking as Clark.
Despite the disappointment with this release, there is something to be said about an artist continuing to revisit and reimagine what their songs could mean. Clark’s bar is high, higher than most artists, and MassEducation doesn’t meet that bar, but it’s a project fans are still glad exists.