Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

St. Vincent saunters into the past with the rakish tales of Daddy’s Home

Annie Clark
Annie Clark
Photo: Zackery Michael

There’s a self-conscious artifice that needs to be embraced in order to fully enter the world of St. Vincent’s dark and compelling new album, Daddy’s Home. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily anything new: Annie Clark, the multi-hyphenated artist now six albums deep into her career under the St. Vincent moniker, has always had a chameleonic muse, adopting different personas and perspectives in her songwriting, most recently with the high-gloss, electronic-infused pop of 2017’s Masseduction, where she sometimes sounded as though she were broadcasting from a near-future dystopia. But with this latest record, she’s gone the opposite direction, back into the past, to conjure a vision of a time she’s only known through music and stories—the early ’70s in New York City. It’s a meticulous musical diorama, replete with striking figures and colorful, lurid narratives that blend reality and fiction, to engrossing effect. If Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea was PJ Harvey’s astute look at turn-of-the-millennium NYC as experienced through an outsider’s perspective, Daddy’s Home is an exacting facsimile of a world that mostly existed through mythmaking; a city long vanished, now lushly reassembled from the mind of an exacting artist.

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Taking inspiration from the real-life release of her father from prison after nearly a decade behind bars, Clark dove into the music and culture of his youth, and the results play out like a 1975 jukebox of New York grooves, albeit filtered through the talents of a musician who has spent the better part of two decades reworking and refining a heady collage of influences into her jagged, insular output. Swaggering soul, touching torch songs, and even the retro sounds of orchestral pop from 50 years ago all come into the mix, swirled together into a begrimed collection of songs about no-good lovers and all-night benders. For maybe the first time, this is music that isn’t instantly identifiable as that of St. Vincent, though the closer you listen, the more her distinctive songwriting style and knack for idiosyncratic arrangements emerge. “My Baby Wants A Baby” and “… At The Holiday Party,” for example, at first sound like pure old-school soul-pop and R&B-laced Americana, respectively, like Clark’s taken on the role of Gladys Knight or Diana Ross, complete with some Pips and Supremes to second that emotion. But when the wah-wahs and wails erupt into the former’s coda and the Steve Cropper-esque guitar licks dip in and out of the latter, St. Vincent’s presence makes itself unmistakably known.

Still, it’s remarkable just how fully Daddy’s Home remains immersed in the styles and songs of a previous generation. Whereas before, Clark’s musical lineage and obvious artistic debt to David Bowie was wielded for forward-looking purposes, here it reaches back, scooping up Young Americans-era sounds and fusing them with the downtown funk and soul of American musicians like Al Green—or even Parliament—in an attempt to capture what made the music of that era so vital. If lead single “Pay Your Way In Pain” nonetheless retained some clear aspects of Clark’s previous electronic beats and bounces, the rest of the album sheds her more immediate sonic touchstones in favor of embracing an almost outré commitment to the nightclub acts of yesteryear. “Down And Out Downtown” conjures visions of Bill Withers at last call, while the title track is as spacey and funky as George Clinton.

What stands out upon repeated listens is just how languid the album is in totality. Clark is maybe one of the best musicians in the country when it comes to sequencing an album, orchestrating the rising and falling of one song’s drift into the next with an expert editor’s mastery of mood. To that end, a haze of almost narcotized grace suffuses the record, as though the music were birthed under the tentative wear of a Sunday-morning hangover. The rare moments of insistent funk, like the Stevie Wonder bop of “Down,” with her signature vocal melody—intimate and slightly distorted—only serve to underscore the mellifluous nature of the rest of it. “The Laughing Man,” with its drums flanged and soaked in effects, is positively somnambulant in its amble, layered in subtle arrangements as it recounts its tale of excess and self-abnegation (“Like the heroines of Cassavetes, I’m under the influence daily”). “Live In The Dream” makes a stop across the pond in the album’s unceasing assemblage of influences, dragging a simple piano melody into a full-on Pink Floyd ballad of lighters-in-the-air bombast. And the album’s sweetest moment, “Somebody Like Me,” approaches the lighter side of ’70s AOR pop, gentle and winsome.

Lyrically, Clark’s hop into The Wayback Machine hasn’t changed her knack for arresting imagery and affecting emotion, so much as it re-situates her words inside of alter egos and characters markedly apart from herself. But that arm’s-length distancing actually works in the music’s favor, letting the sentiments feel all the more real for being placed inside such specific trappings. The bite of “Down”’s pissed-off protagonist sputters with anger (“Tell me who hurt you, no wait / I don’t care to hear an excuse why you think you can be cruel”), and the famous women’s stories she recounts in “The Melting Of The Sun” are matched by a raw-nerve confessional, even as she urges to keep fighting on: “Proud Nina got subpoenaed singing ‘Mississippi good goddamn’ /But me, I never cried, to tell the truth I lied.” These narrators are all either suffering or ruefully recounting the causes of their mistakes, or more often both; it could feel exhausting, were Clark not so clearly in love with the world she’s created. The less-than-two minutes of the album’s last real song, “Candy Darling,” is testament to that passion for her new creations. “I never wanna leave your perfect candy dream / I hope you will be coming home to me,” she sings to her fictional persona, and the desire feels as real as any heart-on-sleeve sonnet.

Like a Tarantino film, Daddy’s Home mines the real to make something above it, a hyperreal daydream of layabouts and losers, wronged women and wrong men, all loving and losing in the late nights of a long-ago past brought into the present. It can be occasionally exhausting—this isn’t an album to just set on “repeat” during a casual night with friends—but it’s a rich experience, executed with St. Vincent’s usual penchant for rigorously assembled layers of subtly produced instrumentation. (Jack Antonoff may be credited as co-producer, but it certainly comes across like Clark was giving the marching orders, both musically and behind the boards.) This is a record in love with the bygone spirits it conjures, and even the sparsest tracks sound like they’ve been punctiliously determined. It’s an album that sounds like it wants to be messy, yet is anything but.

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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.