In the center of St. Vincent’s final album, the glossy and slinky “Masseduction” from 2017, there’s an uncharacteristically sparse piano ballad known as “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” Unlike a number of St. Vincent songs, this one is nearly provocatively easy: only a beautiful melody that Annie Clark’s voice imbues with heat, weary pathos.
It tells the apparently autobiographical story of two New York bohemians who’d as soon as been inseparable, earlier than the narrator obtained well-known and her hard-living pal Johnny ended up on the road. In the final verse, he returns to hit her up for cash. She hesitates, and he accuses her of “acting like all royalty” and severing their bond for good: “What happened to blood, our family/Annie, how could you do this to me?”
That final line hits like an electrical shock. Clark has at all times maintained a efficiency artist’s calculated caginess concerning how a lot of her non-public self she is prepared to supply up in her music, and St. Vincent songs have by no means precisely offered themselves as first-person confessionals. Instead, Clark delights in world-building and role-playing, assigning every album its personal extremely stylized perspective, hairdo and temper board of references.
Ever an interrogator of gender norms, Clark has used this method to push again in opposition to the limiting assumption that feminine artists should at all times make “personal” music. And but, with its first-name-basis and no-frills association, one thing about “Happy Birthday, Johnny” feels particularly uncooked. The New Yorker author Nick Paumgarten asked Clark who Johnny is — a good query, it appeared, a few track that telegraphed such candor. But Clark demurred. “Johnny’s just Johnny,” she answered. “Doesn’t everybody know a Johnny?”
When Clark introduced the title of her sixth solo album, “Daddy’s Home,” it appeared at first prefer it may be one other “Happy Birthday, Johnny” second — a sudden, uncharacteristic pivot to easy autobiography. Cheeky as it’s, the phrase does level fairly on to an occasion in Clark’s private life: Her father, who in 2010 was imprisoned for his function in a stock-manipulation scheme, lately obtained out of jail. Clark has studiously prevented addressing the matter till now, although in interviews selling “Daddy’s Home,” she has steered for the primary time that her emotional response to her father’s incarceration knowledgeable, nonetheless obliquely, her unsettling 2011 masterpiece “Strange Mercy.”
That file was deliciously creepy and anxiety-ridden, however a decade later, on “Daddy’s Home,” Clark is extra inclined to deal with her father’s expertise with a canted humor and swaggering bravado. “I signed autographs in the visitation room,” she sings on the vampy title monitor, “waiting for you the last time, inmate 502.” The track struts woozily, and between the strains, it wonders: Has the daughter inherited extra of the daddy’s vices than she desires to confess? And if that’s the case, who’s her daddy now?
As ever, the album exists inside a totally realized visible aesthetic, all seedy 1970s simulacra: grainy images, louche leisure fits, Gena Rowlands wig. The sonic influences are equally period-specific; sitar and Mellotron abound. Looser and extra fluid than the blurty riffs and prickly-pear tempos which have characterised different St. Vincent albums, “Daddy’s Home” channels Pink Floyd’s hi-fi panoramas, the ecstatic chord modifications of “Innervisions”-era Stevie Wonder and the self-described “plastic soul” of David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
Clark and her co-producer, Jack Antonoff, have clearly had enjoyable with the creation of this finely tuned alternate universe, however at some extent, its many detailed references begin to really feel like muddle, stopping the songs from transferring too freely in their very own methods.
The yawning single “The Melting of the Sun” is weighed down by fixed, wink-wink verbal and sonic quotations of ’70s rock; “Hello from the dark side of the moon,” Clark sings, as her guitar wolf-whistles like Steve Miller’s in “The Joker.” “Like the heroines of Cassavetes, I’m under the influence daily,” she sings, just a little too on the nostril, on the drifting “The Laughing Man.” One indelible spotlight is the gorgeously immersive psychedelia of “Live in the Dream,” however it’s also a Pink Floyd-indebted slow-burner that begins with an echoing, “Hello …” Get it? Too typically, these references really feel as if they’re there only for the sake of cleverness. As a outcome, extra often than it invents or reveals, “Daddy’s Home” gestures.
Eventually, although, throughout its six-and-a-half minutes, “Live in the Dream” manages to drill down just a little deeper. “Welcome, child, you’re free from the cage,” Clark sings in a mild, hazy voice, as if she’s greeting somebody waking up from an extended coma. In these moments, “Daddy’s Home” nods to the psychotherapeutic idea generally known as “reparenting” — a strategy of realizing the wants that weren’t met in a single’s personal childhood after which changing into, in a way, one’s personal daddy. It’s wealthy territory to mine.
Later within the file, on the looking out however nonetheless humorous “My Baby Wants a Baby,” Clark revisits this concept and wonders whether or not or not she desires to enter that infinite cycle of familial trauma. “What in the world would my baby say, I got your eyes and your mistakes?” she sings. “Then I couldn’t stay in bed all day/I couldn’t leave like my daddy.”
With its heat Wurlitzer and Greek-chorus backing vocals from Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway, “My Baby Wants a Baby” can be framed in ’70s rock types. But not like a few of the album’s flatter materials, this track doesn’t really feel impeded by its instrumentation and conceptual concepts. Instead, it appears to be discovering and revealing because it goes alongside.
It’s a comparatively uncommon second, although. As a complete, “Daddy’s Home” finally ends up feeling like a file that wishes it each methods: It flirts with and even valorizes autobiographical disclosure solely to retreat from it and again into a spot of sunshine pastiche when issues danger changing into just a little too messy.
One of probably the most shocking moments comes throughout “The Melting of the Sun,” when Clark shouts out three of her musical heroes: Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos. Like Clark, all three are identified for virtuosity. But not like Clark, they’re additionally identified for the extraordinary, fearless emotionality of their music and the best way it might smudge the road between non-public emotion and public efficiency.
If these are her lodestars, maybe they’ll present a pathway towards a genuinely revelatory new path. Artifice can in fact challenge bigger truths, however it might simply as simply turn into a trusty hiding place. On “Daddy’s Home,” Clark typically creeps as much as her edge, solely to return to that playfully distorted corridor of mirrors that has turn into her consolation zone.
(Loma Vista Recordings)