St. Vincent Carries Sounds of the ‘70s Into Exhilarating New Territory on ‘Daddy’s Home’
Even knowing that its title is literally inspired by Annie Clark’s father’s 2019 release from prison, St. Vincent’s “Daddy’s Home” feels like an odd title in 2021 when female empowerment is more prominent, and more important than ever. But listening to this dynamic and absolutely mesmerizing collection of songs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was Clark herself who’s “Daddy,” as she absolutely clears the playing field for contemporary rock artists and undoubtedly teaches a few things with her swagger, unpredictability and peerless musicianship.
Albums rarely exist outside of some at least semi-identifiable musical context, whether they’re inspired by predecessors or absorbing the zeitgeist in seeming real time. But even if there are undeniable connections present in Clark’s work, “Daddy’s Home” challenges you to find them as she combines sounds in a way that defies a clear or comforting musical continuity. For example, the synthesizer ribbon that grounds the opening track, “Pay Your Way In Pain,” immediately conjures the Eurythmics’ 1983 classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” but the drums and rattling percussion veer into a tempo half the speed of that song, and Clark’s vocals come from some sort of gospel-glam-hip-hop cabaret, the combination of Princess Superstar and the New York Dolls that you never knew you needed. That falsetto as she asks “what do you want” strikes a balance between Prince and Beck, half come-on and half tongue-in-cheek, fulfilling rock goddess fantasies with an effortless but knowing wink.
And then on “Down And Out Downtown,” she switches gears completely with a track that sounds like a team-up between Dido, Aimee Mann and a “Drive”-era Cars, a subdued bit of trip-hop that builds repeatedly into string-laden crescendos and operatic choruses: “Hey, I was flying / Over the Empire State / Then you kissed me / And I crashed again.” Jack Antonoff may be one of the most prolific producers working right now, shaping hits for Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey and of course Clark, but it’s her bravado in combining all of these elements that makes the songs so strong, and so interesting; sort of like Beck in his “Mutations” and “Midnite Vultures”era, those influences are being so confidently incorporated into what at this moment has become her own identity that the divisions, and distinctions, are virtually invisible. When you hear the Rock & Roll lullaby of a song like “Live In The Dream,” it’s not just building on a legacy that started with the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers,” it’s incorporating Jeff Lynne’s Beatles-aping excesses of Electric Light Orchestra, and then creating a completely new generation of that sound — taking homage and turning it into something new.
Clark pays tribute to some of her iconic predecessors — some triumphant, others tragic — on “The Melting Of The Sun,” celebrating Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Nina Simone. It’s a wide net she casts, but they all wrestled with painful obstacles and complex legacies; where Clark differs, at least thus far, is how clear-eyed is her view of them, and if her lyrics sometimes explore experiences and emotion in oblique ways, that typical complexity speaks to her understanding of the mantle she inherits, or at least is willing to claim. Whether as a mantra for herself or encouragement for her contemporaries, she understands the pressure faced by women, and reminds them to persist: “Girl, the world’s spinning ’round / Spinning down and out of time,” she sings. “Girl, you can’t give in now / When you’re down, down and out.”
She more or less builds that idea into a full-fledged empowerment anthem on “Down,” the song of a woman who is not going to be abused or minimized by anyone: “Tell me who hurt you
No, wait, I don’t care to / Hear an excuse why you think you can be cruel / Mama always told me / “You got to turn the other cheek” / But even she would agree, you’re an exception to that rule.” The protagonist of Clark’s songs may or may not always be exactly her, but they’re working through more than a single sentiment at once, and finding strength or solace through the process of exploring them. By the time she gets to “Somebody Like Me,” the sort of core influence for the record becomes clear (if it isn’t already from the cover photo with her in full late ‘70s regalia): as that era’s AM-radio singer songwriter instincts metastasized into what became the adult contemporary genre, lines crossed between orchestral pop and more than a little bit of pre-packaged schmaltz. What Clark is doing is reclaiming the heyday of Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, Wings and Bob Welch, and elevating it into something vital, contemporary and thrillingly idiosyncratic.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “My Baby Wants A Baby,” which quotes the melody from Sheena Easton’s 1981 hit “Morning Train (9 To 5)” (appropriately co-crediting original songwriter Florrie Palmer), but turns that song’s decidedly outdated tribute between a man working hard and the woman waiting impatiently for him to return at the end of the day into a meditation on a partner who loves her “like a saint” but also impedes her from accomplishing her goals, big or small as they may be. The next track, “…At The Holiday Party,” serves as a brilliant companion piece, an observation, and consolation, of a friend she sees not getting, and doing, what she wants: “Smiles and smoke and screens / Your Gucci purse a pharmacy / Pretend to want these things / So no one sees you not getting / Not getting what you need.” That song’s repeated refrain, “You can’t hide from me,” offers both a promise and threat from Clark, making her both a best friend and the one who sees you better than you do yourself, all because of how clearly and mercilessly she observes herself.
From her to defiant declarations to wistful odes, St. Vincent contains the kind of multitudes that feel honest and brave, and “Daddy’s Home” offers an appropriate but unexpected lesson in parental guidance: mash up your influences, mash up your feelings, and then let them out in fearless, cacophonous noise. Of course, we can’t all do that as beautifully as Clark does, but she makes it feel possible even without her multifaceted talents.
“Daddy’s Home” releases May 14 on Apple Music.