In the middle of Saint-Vincent’s latest album, the sleek and form-fitting “Masseduction” of 2017, there’s an unusually sparse piano ballad called “Happy birthday, Johnny.” Unlike many St. Vincent songs, this one is almost provocative: just a beautiful melody that Annie Clark’s voice imbues with warm, tired pathos.
It tells the seemingly autobiographical story of two New York bohemians who had once been inseparable, before the narrator rose to fame and his friend Johnny ended up on the streets. In the last verse, he comes back to get her for money. She hesitates, and he accuses her of “behaving like all royalty” and severing their bond for good: “What happened to the blood, to our family / Annie, how could you do this to me? ? “
This last line hits like an electric shock. Clark has always maintained the calculated shyness of a performance artist as to the part of her private personality she is willing to offer in her music, and St. Vincent’s songs have never exactly presented themselves as confessionals at the same time. first person. Instead, Clark revel in world-building and role-playing, giving each album its own highly styled attitude, hairstyle, and mood.
Always questioning gender norms, Clark used this technique to push back the limiting assumption that female artists should always make âpersonalâ music. And yet, with its first name base and no-frills arrangement, something about “Happy Birthday, Johnny” sounds particularly raw. New York writer Nick Paumgarten asked clark who johnny is – a good question, it seems, about a song that telegraphs such candor. But Clark hesitated. “Johnny is just Johnny,” she replied. “Doesn’t everyone know a Johnny?”
When Clark announced the title of his sixth solo album, “Daddy’s Home,” it appeared at first as if it was another “Happy Birthday, Johnny” moment – a sudden and unusual pivot to a straightforward autobiography. . As cheeky as it is, the line points directly to an event in Clark’s personal life: His father, who in 2010 was jailed for his role in a stock manipulation scheme, was recently released from prison. Clark has carefully avoided bringing up the issue so far, although in interviews promoting “Daddy’s Home,” she has suggested for the first time that her emotional response to her father’s incarceration was, even indirectly, informing. , from his disturbing 2011 masterpiece âStrange Mercyâ.
This record was delightfully creepy and scary, but a decade later, on “Daddy’s Home,” Clark is more inclined to approach his father’s experience with slanted humor and swaggering bravado. “I signed autographs in the visiting room,” she sings over the vampy title song, “waiting for you last time, inmate 502.” The song struts woozily, and between the lines, she wonders: has the daughter inherited more of the father’s vices than she wants to admit? And if so, who is her daddy now?
As always, the album exists in a fully realized visual aesthetic, all seedy mockery of the 1970s: grainy photographs, sleazy leisure costumes, Gena Rowlands wig. Sound influences are also period specific; sitar and mellotron abound. Looser and smoother than the fuzzy riffs and prickly pear tempos that characterized other St. Vincent albums, “Daddy’s Home” channels the hi-fi panoramas of Pink Floyd, the ecstatic chord changes of ” Innervisions â-era Stevie Wonder and the self- describes theâ plastic soul âof David Bowie’sâ Young Americans â.
Clark and his co-producer, Jack Antonoff, clearly had fun creating this finely tuned alternate universe, but at some point, his many detailed references start to feel like a mess, preventing the songs from moving too freely in their own way. . .
The gaping single “The Melting of the Sun” is weighed down by constant verbal and sonic quotes, wink-wink, from 70s rock; “Hello from the dark side of the moon,” Clark sings, as his guitar whistles like Steve Miller’s in “The Joker.” “Like the heroines of Cassavetes, I am daily under the influence”, she sings, a little too much on the nose, on the drift “The Laughing Man”. An indelible highlight is the beautifully immersive psychedelia of âLive in the Dream,â but it’s also a indebted Pink Floyd slow-burner that begins with an echo, âHelloâ¦â Get it? Too often, these references give the impression that they are there just for the intelligence. As a result, more frequently than he invents or reveals, “Daddy’s Home” makes gestures.
Eventually, however, over the course of its six and a half minutes, âLive in the Dreamâ manages to delve a little deeper. “Welcome, my child, you are free from the cage,” Clark sings in a soft, hazy voice, as if greeting someone who is awakening from a long coma. In these moments, âDaddy’s Homeâ nods to the psychotherapeutic concept known as âreparentingâ – a process of realizing needs that were unmet in one’s own childhood and becoming, in a meaning, his own daddy. It is a rich territory for mine.
Later in the record, on the research but still humorous “My Baby Wants a Baby,” Clark revisits that idea and wonders whether or not she wants to go into this never-ending cycle of family trauma. “What the hell would my baby say, I have 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 warm backing vocals from Wurlitzer and Greek backing vocals from Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway, “My Baby Wants a Baby” is also framed in 70s rock styles. But unlike some of the album’s flattest material, this song does not feel embarrassed by its instrumentation and conceptual ideas. Instead, he seems to discover and reveal as he goes.
It’s a relatively rare moment, however. As a whole, “Daddy’s Home” ends up feeling like a record that wants to be both ways: it flirts with and even values ââautobiographical disclosure only to move away from it and return to a place of light pastiche when the going gets tough. to get a little too messy.
One of the most surprising moments comes during “The Sun’s Melting,” when Clark shouts out three of his musical heroes: Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos. Like Clark, all three are known for their virtuosity. But unlike Clark, they are also known for the intense and fearless emotionality of their music and the way it can distinguish between private emotion and public performance.
If these are his lodestars, perhaps they can provide a path to a truly revealing new direction. Artifice can of course project greater truths, but it can just as easily become a stash of trust. On “Daddy’s Home,” Clark sometimes crawls to his edge, only to return to that playfully-twisted mirror room that has become his comfort zone.
(Loma Vista recordings)