Annie Clark, the flesh-and-blood person behind the alt-rock alter ego St. Vincent, has made a career of hiding behind things, whether it's an affectation or a costume or the icy detachment she brings to her famously prickly interviews. Even when her music is at a fever pitch, when her trademark guitar licks glow liquid-magma hot, there always seems to be a deliberate emotional remove at play.
It's practically her selling point. Clark even collaborated on a 2012 album called Love This Giant with David Byrne, another enigmatic performer best known for influential art-school theatrics. Byrne commented on Clark's ambiguity to the Village Voice in 2014: "Despite having toured with her for almost a year I don't think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level. You could call it privacy, or mystery or whatever. ... And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant."
I don't observe all this as a criticism, either. I think that St. Vincent is making some of the most exciting, unpredictable, witty and straight-up great rock music right now, and what makes her so intriguing is that, like David Bowie or Prince before her, she unapologetically leans into the fantasy of the Mythic Rock Star. Her lyrics have occasionally provided insights into her personal life, but the fleeting glimpses we've gotten behind the curtain feel as performative as anything else. She allows us to project all of our assumptions about her onto her, and she's smirking all the while.
So the fact that her new album Daddy's Home is apparently drawn from true-life experiences is enough for any fan to raise an eyebrow. A lot has been written about her sixth solo studio album being inspired by her estranged relationship with her father, recently released from prison on charges of wire fraud and money laundering. What's so odd, then, is that Daddy's Home doesn't feel like a diary entry. Certain songs have the narrative specificity of Joni Mitchell or Tracy Chapman, but they could just as well be fictions.
"I signed autographs in the visitation room / Waiting for you the last time, inmate 502," she sings on the album's title track, and we have to wonder, did that really happen?
St. Vincent reinvents her image for every new album cycle, and with the release of Daddy's Home, Clark has adopted a 1970s aesthetic, complete with leisure suits and a blonde bob hairdo. Clark has said that thumbing through her own dad's old record collection is the real inspiration behind the album, and she has fully embraced that era's stylistic shorthand: the wah-wah pedals, the sitars, the soul-inflected backing vocals, the electric organs. She even name checks 1970s independent cinema ("Like the heroines of Cassavetes / I'm under the influence daily," she says on "The Laughing Man"), references The Dark Side of the Moon, and has an entire song about the death of Warhol superstar Candy Darling.
As soon as the lead single, the slithering album opener "Pay Your Way in Pain," was released in March, it garnered comparisons to Prince, Kate Bush and especially Midnite Vultures, Beck's 1999 tribute to disco-funk and sweaty dance jams. I don't know if Clark is specifically influenced by Midnite Vultures, or if she and Beck are merely swimming in the same pool of retro influences; they've both approached classic rock posturing with an off-kilter humor, that's for sure.
Unlike St. Vincent's artistic breakthrough Strange Mercy (2011) and her remarkable 2014 self-titled LP, Daddy's Home feels more like a grower. It doesn't immediately announce itself as an unassailable classic the way those earlier records did, but the more times I've listened to it, the more I've warmed to it. I'm not sure why that is, but perhaps it's inherent in Clark's commitment to retro pastiche: Because she's so beholden to other artists' styles, she can only deliver so much sonic invention.
Daddy's Home was produced by ubiquitous pop auteur Jack Antonoff, who also co-wrote a few of the tracks, and his involvement is apparent in the solid songcraft on display. As with so many of his recent collaborations, including those with Lorde and Taylor Swift, it's totally possible that the next time I hit play on Daddy's Home, it will jump out to me as an especially great pop record. Or maybe it will remain a curious chapter in the ambitious career of an at-arm's-length pop star.
Either way, Clark knows exactly what she's doing. "If life's a joke," she sings, "I'm dying laughing." ♦