Twelve months on from ‘Masseduction’, does anyone need a piano-and-vocal version of that same record? ‘Masseduction’ arrived in a glitter cannon of engaging PR stunts, sleek imagery and a record built on a maximalism previously unheard in Clark’s previous four records – all sweaty, steroid choruses and Moroder synths.
That record was marked by its heavy stylisation and concept, and if the aesthetic decision to strip that back isn’t clear then the commercial one certainly is.
Spotify rewards the release of multiple versions of its tracks – especially acoustic or piano versions of these tracks, sheering off any spiky edges so that material is fighting fit for behemothic playlists like ‘Afternoon Acoustic’ (2.4m followers) and ‘Peaceful Piano’ (an even heartier 2.9m followers). Of course, this isn’t new – the sixty year story of pop music is a story of songwriters, producers and executives contorting themselves to the constraints of each emerging medium. But does this mean we’ve anything new to learn about ‘Masseduction’ through ‘Masseducation’? Thankfully, like the protagonist in the song ‘Saviour’ here, these are songs that enjoy dressing up.
Recorded as mixing was winding down on ‘Masseduction’, this record features Clark collaborating with the New York producer/pianist Thomas Bartlett. Bartlett deserves credit on ‘Masseducation’ for avoiding the common tropes of the stripped back piano interpretation (well, apart from on a slightly sentimental airing of ‘New York’). His playing is muscular, dynamic and his interpretations of the material are often unpredictable. Clark is similarly focused on ensuring that each track is projected from a different angle than on the original record, and this is where ‘Masseducation’ gets interesting.
The assertive sexuality that dominates the original record consistently becomes something altogether more clawing, more neurotic, more seedy. Take ‘Saviour’, reinvented here as a stalking, gothic cabaret. The crucial payoff (“Honey I am not your martyr…but then you say, please”) is given the space to hang in the air, suddenly not artifice and temptation but something pained and sinister. This is a record of private acts in private rooms, and the starkness of the arrangement here emphasise this – on ‘Fear the Future’, Clark rasps about “when the war started new / in our bed in our room / I come for you / come for me too.” And ‘Sugarboy’ – precisely the kind of track that shouldn’t work in this pared back arrangement – is utterly thrilling, reaching a climax of Bartlett’s insistent high notes and Clark lost in the breathless repetition of the song’s coda of ‘boys…girls…boys…girls’.
Clearly, there’s an awareness of which tracks work – the handful that work the least are relegated to the final tracks, such as original opener ‘Hang on Me’ or ‘Pills’. It’s ‘Pills’ that really struggles to find a new breathing space, and you’re reminded quite how much the studio version’s nagging, Stepford Wives chorus added to Clark’s American pastoral satire (be it the pill-popping A-lister in a high rise hotel, or the opioid addict dying in a mid-Western town, Clark observes the prescription drug to be the last unifying factor in modern America).
Of course, the tracks that require little paring back shine, such as the after- hours confessional of ‘Smoking Section’ and, most notably, ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’. That song is the narrative follow-up to Clark’s 2014 track ‘Prince Johnny’, and it’s a haunting portrait of a friend’s fall from elegant decadence to spending New Year’s Eve living on the streets. It’s a track that demonstrates the best of Clark’s writing, unfolding like a concertina – observe the simple addition of a few words on each line of the chorus to ‘Los Ageless’, and how it works with such economy: “how can anybody have you? How can anybody have you and lose you? How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?"
It will be fascinating to see where Clark goes next, but in the meantime ‘Masseducation’ is better than it needs to be, and an interesting reflection on a career defining record.
Words: Fergal Kinney
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