St. Vincent is at the height of her powers embracing the sounds of the Golden Era of music.
By the time Annie Clark struck out on her own, she was already adorned with heaps of indie rock clout from her stints with hip, music rag darlings. From its inception, the St. Vincent moniker has stood for a level of alternative rock innovation that has led the sound of the naughts into the ’10s, ’20s, and beyond. From her debut Marry Me, through her smash self-titled, to 2017’s Masseduction (featured in Eli Jace’s Top 10 albums of of the last 4 years article), she has consistently garnered praise from critics and adoration from fans for her jilted, techno-spastic guitar work and her reconciliation of lingering human emotions in this disassociated digital-cool age. Armed with her otherworldly Ernie Ball six-string, she has amassed a reputable collection of 21st Century think pieces.
So where does an artist like Ms. Clark go to switch things up when she’s led this progressive mission? To the past.
To say Daddy’s Home is a “retro throwback” album is highly reductive and also 100% accurate. St. Vincent harnesses the sounds, the aesthetic, the lexicon, and the vibe of mid-20th century music with love, reverence, and full embodiment. She proudly proclaims that this is her homage to that golden era of vinyl-etched rock, eagerly citing Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, War, Steely Dan, Yes, and James Brown as heavy influences. For all the hype over the album’s ’70s funk flavor, equally strong is its use of the psychedelia that crested in the ’60s and spilled over into the FM radio ’70s. The album feels arranged into three parts with the middle third being washed heavily in a psychedelic glow with the “acid days’ cuts from The Beatles coalescing with Pink Floyd and Bowie to create a string of gems that will sweep you away to some transcendent sunbeam.
However, to file it away as simply her throwback album or a regression does not give it nearly enough credit. The sounds might be vintage but the songwriting, production, tone, and attitude are more elevated than anything in her previous catalogue. A song like the first single and the album’s lead-off ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’ collides 1971 with 2021 taking the slinky, stanky funk of an artist like the great Betty Davis and ratcheting it up for the new age with beefy pumping synths and some gurgling vocal processing. The half-time shuffle comes down hard, grinding out the beat as Clark sneers and coos, yelps and jeers. Her erotically eccentric howls are backed by a line of brazen backups. St. Vincent’s SNL performance of the track introduced the world to her latest aesthetic sporting a thick-collared green pantsuit and blond bob as she dipped like a boss to the lurching rhythm. Clutching the long rectangular frame of a vintage Sennheiser 441, Clark belted out an iconic performance. The highlight of this off-kilter season.
‘Down and Out Downtown’ settles us into the groovy experience. A nice mild shuffle with electric piano that takes you to dusk on an apartment balcony. The day’s last sun rays stretching out down the block. The album’s touchstone Coral electric sitar makes its first appearance like the first few rips of a joint, trading off with Clark’s smooth romantic drawl. Woozy Mellotron strings further score the oncoming high. The title track’s laid-back lounge sound contrasts the somewhat heavy subject of her father’s release after nearly a decade in prison. Clark trades off lines both candid and cagy, dancing around the pain to set up a tongue-lashing punchline. The result is not a boorish emotional flood but rather a detached observance with flickers of spite mixed with love.
The true triumph of the album happens in that middle third from the rainbow-dripping haze of ‘Live In The Dream’ to the sexy snarl of the third single ‘Down’. In this section, St. Vincent largely slips back a decade into the ’60s. The sitar is your White Rabbit as Annie takes you on a trip to a sun-drenched heightened reality from effusive self-actualization through existential acceptance and back again. Stoney summer vibes in spades. ‘Live In The Dream’ is The Beatles’ ‘Sun King’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ coalescing in a perfect swirl, slowed down to an aimless saunter. Milky guitar arpeggios chorusing into the river of keys, the sitar shimmering like the sun sparkling on the warm summer water. Clark voices a luminescent solstice incantation peaking with an acid-soaked solo in the lineage of Hendrix.
The second single and potentially the album’s most affecting anthem, ‘The Melting of the Sun’ has that light, lively bounce of clavinet and a Levon Helm-inspired drum groove. It feels open, fresh, and vulnerable like the wearied satisfaction of admitting your faults and learning to live with them. St. Vincent spends the track referencing heroes and the grand gesture or monumental calamity that defined them. She name-checks Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, and Nina Simone with a very similar cadence to ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’ from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, adding a degree of glam to the proceedings. You can feel her putting herself in that lineup to see how she measures up. The lines lifted from Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ are turned on their ear giving a glimpse into her glib mindset. Aspiring yet still humbled by their larger-than-life stature and iron-clad conviction. The track swells to a gospel preaching the power of perseverance.
The album is segmented by three brief segues mixed to sound like an old-timey radio playing in the other room. Brief melodic musings to take you from here to the next vignette. ‘The Laughing Man’ is an end of the rope slow burn that arrives there with a smirk on its face. Annie faces that ultimate irony of life’s purpose on this lazy Sunday track. She offers up some of the album’s best lines with listless, sardonic whimsy.
“9-1-1 (9-1-1, what’s your emergency?)
I’m in love (I see, so how can I help you?)
I can hear the angels sweeping, so why do I feel like sleeping?
Little birds, little birds chirp, chirp, chirp
Singing like the day is perfect, but to me they sound psychotic
I know you’re gone, you left the scene
Heaven had more important things
But I can’t sleep
I know you know exactly what I mean
If life’s a joke, then I’m dying laughing
Why not? Sure
Like the heroines of Cassavetes
I’m underneath the influence daily”
The third single ‘Down’ wraps this middle chapter with another deep funk banger. Percolating synths bubble like a cauldron. Slices of razor wire funk guitar duel with the sitar that’s been repurposed again, this time with teeth. St. Vincent’s sticky and snappy delivery teems with scorn and spite. With her squad of sassy backup singers watching her six, Clark goes for the jugular of the man who took advantage of her generosity.
‘Somebody Like Me’ provides a cool down from ‘Down’s fiery indictment. Fingerpicked guitar melds with studio legend Greg Leisz’s pedal steel for a breezy aside. The track along with ‘…At the Holiday Party’ have some very strong Joni Mitchell vibes, one of the stronger influences on the album which doesn’t seem to get as much spotlight in the press as the funk forays. ‘My Baby Wants a Baby’ reaches back even further to classic Motown balladry for its vocal style while the band plays like a tight, ’70s New York Lennon backing band, fused with the ever-present Coral electric sitar to make the concoction of retro influences feel brand new. The album ostensibly closes with a sauntering glammy tribute to New York transgender muse to Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, the eponymous ‘Candy Darling’. The scenester actress of ‘Walk On the Wild Side’ fame continuing to inspire songs 47 years later.
Longtime fans will probably point to her more modern-sounding albums of years past as her best work but Daddy’s Home is St. Vincent writing at the top of her game. A strong case can be made that this is her finest work to date. Rightly, a share of the credit should go to producer Jack Antonoff. Despite the fact that his other credits are some fairly gag-worthy projects like his main band Fun., Antonoff has managed to help Clark create this album which is sonically gorgeous. St. Vincent has an insatiable itch for one-upmanship and this record is another rung in that ladder. Few in the indie scene right now are operating at Annie’s level of rarified air.