From day one, Annie Clark set her ambitions much grander than the stages she initially performed on, but even as the platform grew, she continued her gaze toward even broader horizons. Her debut album as St. Vincent, Marry Me, maximalized the fairly simple idea of a singer/songwriter record with horns, strings and blazing guitar solos, and 2009’s Actor more fully fleshed out this space with fantastically scored examinations of domesticity and gender roles. Her pursuits have only gotten bigger and weirder from there, from a white-haired cult-leader in a toilet costume to a PVC pop icon.
Though it’s perhaps an exaggeration to say that Clark inhabits the role of a new character with each new album, she—much like David Bowie, one of her musical heroes—adapts to a new approach and a new concept with every foray into the studio. Over time those concepts become more explicitly fleshed out and given the proper architecture to flourish, yet these abstract ideas don’t create more distance between Clark and the listener—not exactly. Even as MASSEDUCTION provided an immersion in bright neon pop-art, Clark delivered some of her most openly vulnerable breakup songs. Similarly, her sixth album Daddy’s Home coincides with her own father’s release from prison after a sentence for stock manipulation, and its aesthetic is in part a tribute to the music she associates with him. The songs aren’t always so personal in obvious ways, but that they’re rooted in a genuine anxiety about family and parenthood, about the choices we make and all that happens in spite of them, gives them context beyond well-crafted pastiche.
St. Vincent’s performance of “Pay Your Way In Pain” on SNL prior to the album’s release—Clark draped in polyester and backed by a trio of singers—provided a fitting introduction to the new world she inhabits, one of a kind of earth-tone ’70s, pre-punk New York glamour that would have seemed as fitting to see during one of SNL‘s earliest seasons, too long ago for Clark to have experienced it firsthand. It’s not the first time Clark has turned to New York City for inspiration (and the music industry loves an album about New York like Hollywood loves a movie about the magic of cinéma), but its aesthetic feels like a warmer, more analog counterpoint to its predecessor. Its reference points are easy to spot—the way that Clark bends her pronunciation of “pain!” feels like a nod to the way Bowie sung “faaaaame”—but it’s a welcome, even comfortable approach after the bells and whistles of her previous effort.
If Daddy’s Home resembles any specific Bowie album, it’s certainly the funk and soul groove of 1975’s Young Americans. But where that album felt mostly like Bowie’s meta-commentary on popular culture itself, Daddy’s Home is an internal monologue in stylized retro packaging. She’s a pariah in heels watching mothers in the park in “Pay Your Way in Pain,” attempting to stay grounded in a showbiz world in the slo-mo psychedelia of “Live in the Dream,” and honors long-gone starlets while assuming the role of a “benzo beauty queen” in the gospel-inflected soul of “The Melting of the Sun.” The sepia-toned ballad “The Laughing Man” looks back on a childhood friend who died too young (“I know you’re gone, you left the scene/Heaven had more important things“) against a gospel/R&B arrangement, but the album’s most thrilling song, psychedelic funk standout “Down,” breaks the album’s pattern of reflection and reaction and replaces it with genuine action, Clark promising and threatening, “I’ll take you down.” Amid these elaborately arranged songs she’s often alone with her thoughts, which makes it all the more exciting when those thoughts take a slightly more jagged turn.
Most of the songs on St. Vincent’s past albums felt as if they couldn’t have been created by anyone but Clark herself. With its transparency about its influences, Daddy’s Home doesn’t quite feel the same, its clavinet grooves recalling Stevie Wonder’s most triumphantly funky moments and its melodic slide riffs a callback to early solo George Harrison. (And “My Baby Wants A Baby,” for that matter, literally nicks the hook from Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” in one of the record’s more head-scratching moments.) Daddy’s Home is a curious contradiction of an album, at once Clark’s most intimately personal while feeling more detached from everything that came before it. And yet, it’s a highly enjoyable album, one with fewer misses than its predecessor, in spite of that. The more we’re offered the opportunity to know Annie Clark, the more abstract the path is to getting there. It’s not a bad tradeoff.
Label: Loma Vista
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.