St. Vincent takes her musicianship to downtown New York, heels in hand, with yesterday’s paint on and no intention to relinquish any control over a spotty narrative.
Annie Clark has been inhabiting her moniker through savant rounds of reinvention with each album cycle. Born out of a Nick Cave lyric, St. Vincent first reflected the experiences of youth and the friction between reality and fiction in Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009). She then pushed the envelope of self-expression in Strange Mercy (2011) and a self-titled album (2014) before picking up latex gloves and high heels to play the dominatrix on 2017’s Masseduction. This time around, a sepia-toned deadpan stare beneath a blonde wig with a sketch of a smirk welcomes you to her latest body of work, a 70s-indebted collection of tracks (loosely) based on Clark’s father’s release from prison. Daddy’s home.
“I can’t turn off what turns me on,” Clark growled on Masseduction’s explosive title track. In ‘Pay Your Way In Pain,’ she now deplores “the sun is gone to melting” (further echoed in the album’s second single), suggesting she might have found a way to tame her impulses. The solution seems simple enough: burn down the object of her desire to ashes and let the wind clean the mess up. So when she cries, “I wanna be loved!” it’s hard not to wonder whether she’d be quickly bored out of her mind if we did, in fact, love her.
Hardly glancing back at previous work with each of her recent eras, St. Vincent could teach Orpheus a thing or two. But this time, Clark actually does look back. Not at her own music, but at New York City in the early 70s and the musical ebullience of that point in the space-time continuum. Her trademark reverent irreverence is carried over into this new vantage point, and one thing is clear: Daddy’s Home is, undoubtedly, a proper St. Vincent album.
Remnants of Masseduction’s simmering chaos resurface in the neurotic opening number as St. Vincent indulges a sweating syrupy meltdown. ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ is bouncy and lethargic at the same time. It’s like forcefully trying to get up from the couch but not quite reaching equilibrium and trying again, and again, and again… The voices inside her head flicker throughout until an ultimate howl cannibalizes the entire composition into nothingness. The spine-tingling ‘Down’ also clearly gets Clark’s blood pumping. She channels Black Mamba from the first line to the last, playfully deadly in demeanor and craft. The track sounds every bit calculated and precise as you’d expect from talented instrumentalists like Jack Antonoff and Clark, but the result is also incredibly entertaining.
Elsewhere Clark plays entirely different roles on their way across Delancey Street and up Essex in the Lower East Side. She hugs the mic sensually in ‘Down And Out Downtown,’ recalling “last night’s heels on the morning train.” Uneventful but agreeable, you have to squint to see St. Vincent inside a dimly lit bar on a Tuesday afternoon. Quick costume change, and here is Clark sluggishly talking to a confused stranger passed out on the pavement in standout ‘Live in the Dream.’ The track swells into an almost devotional hymn that quickly transcends the earthly scenario of its premise. And it doesn’t take much to go beyond the lyrical circumstances as Clark keeps her story voluntarily vague: Is this real life, or is this just fantasy?
Clark manages to stay away from pastiche in all but one track. The cheeky title cut is a slinky welcome home party for her dad, imprisoned for stock manipulation schemes involving millions of dollars–and the focal point of St. Vincent’s marketing effort ahead of the release date. The shrieks threaded throughout sound like cheap tricks to make Clark and Antonoff’s songwriting more palatable. You can read her smirk in the lyrics: “all good puritans they’ll pray about reform,” she taunts, knowing such a line will send her critics into upheaval in a context of growing support for the reform, if not abolition, of the prison-industrial complex across the United States. Not content with stirring the pot, she adds, “Hell, where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you,” playing back a tacky Western movie we’ve all seen before to underscore that really she’s only joking. To quote Clark herself: “If life’s a joke, then I’m dying laughing” (‘The Laughing Man’).
Although this back-and-forth between sarcasm and sincerity can at times be (frustratingly) indecipherable, specks of candidness find their way to the attentive listener. As St. Vincent praises legendary women in the arts in the brilliant ‘The Melting Of The Sun,’ she reveals, “Me, I never cried / To tell the truth, I lied.” It’s a confession that could very well allude to the emotional distance Clark keeps between herself and her music. The diaristic impulses of Antonoff’s biggest collaborators–Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde–are in clear opposition to St. Vincent’s cool demeanor. Her aloofness manifests itself in Daddy’s Home (and Masseduction‘s) showmanship–two vastly different records tied to the hip by a flair for drama and performance.
Unfortunately, the shroud of mystery Clark cultivates around St. Vincent’s persona doesn’t mesh too well with the narrative she offers to describe the work: her father’s return from prison doesn’t bring up the expected set of reckoning, hard truths, and complications. The fact is, we’re by no means owed any of it. Still, it can feel slightly counter-productive to introduce the album in such a way and then ask listeners to look the other way. It’s ultimately up to each of us to trace a journey from top to bottom and try and make sense of the record’s eclectic lyricism. It’s all there for the taking; you just have to work for it.