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Can We Ignore the St. Vincent Discourse and Talk About the Music?

‘Daddy’s Home’: an interesting, subversive album. The conversation around it: not fun for anyone involved.

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Let me tell you about this new St. Vincent song I really like. That OK with you? Weird concept, right? Less than 10 percent of online discourse about this person falls into the Let’s Just Talk About St. Vincent Songs We Like category at this point. It’s too bad. It’s not quite her fault. It’s not quite ours. Anyway, I really like this new St. Vincent song called “My Baby Wants a Baby.”

My baby loves me like a saint
My baby hates when I’m away
My baby wants a baby
How can I go on?

Daddy’s Home is Annie Clark’s sixth solo album as the art-pop provocateur, acerbic guitar god, occasional tabloid sensation, and reliable generator of lousy online discourse also known as St. Vincent. Maybe you heard this is her quote-unquote ’70s album: David Bowie, Sly & the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Labelle, Dark Side of the Moon–era Pink Floyd. Don’t get too hung up on all that. Not because it’s wrong, necessarily: Compared to the last St. Vincent record, 2017’s stiff and subversive robo-funk jaunt Masseduction, there is a refreshing analog chillness to this new one, a welcome sense of groggy humans making groggier music in a wood-paneled room together. Daddy’s Home does, indeed, sound like an extra-louche and near-comatose Steely Dan antihero rudely roused via air horn from a Lower East Side gutter.

But the trick is to not let the hyper-stylized vintage framing—coupled with the reliable chaos of yet another St. Vincent press outrage cycle—wash out the songs themselves. The elaborate art direction, steely sound bites, and high-concept character reboots that accompany each new album are helpful until they aren’t, clarifying until they’re suffocating. (Previous Annie Clark iterations for previous St. Vincent records, described in her own words, span from “asexual Pollyanna” to “near-future cult leader” to “dominatrix at the mental institution.”) It’s the difference between a costume and a disguise, an illustration and a distraction.

My baby’s closer than a shave
My baby’s blue when I dye gray
My baby wants a baby
How can it be wrong?

Whoops, got distracted. “My Baby Wants a Baby” takes its melodic and structural cues from Sheena Easton’s bubbly 1980 housewife-in-love jam “Morning Train (Nine to Five),” but Clark slows the pace, as she often does on Daddy’s Home, to a syrupy hangover crawl. The wah-wah funk of the guitars smears into a slurry puree; her backing vocalists (Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway, daughter of Donny) wail like jovial tension headaches. Cue the sitar (this album’s woozy signature instrument); cue the horn riffs that box your ears like semi-jovial car horns. (Daddy’s Home, like Masseduction, was produced by professional subversive-pop-star-whisperer Jack Antonoff, still at his best when it’s not obvious he’s involved.) It’s a lot to process, but spend too long processing it all and you’ll miss Clark in a startlingly relatable lyrical mode. Unlike her baby, see, she’s not quite sure she wants a baby.

But I wanna play guitar all day
Make all my meals in microwaves
Only dress up if I get paid
How can it be wrong?

Do we ever want St. Vincent to sound “relatable,” though? Maybe not! Does she ever want you particularly relating to her? Definitely not! Clark has had some illuminating conversations in advance of Daddy’s Home, describing “My Baby Wants a Baby” as “the most base, dirtbaggy version of my life,” and summarizing the record’s feel as “it’s like this glamour that hasn’t slept for three days.” (As for the new personas—and hairstyles—that announce every new St. Vincent album, she added, “I really get such a thrill getting to be a different person every two or three years.”)

But Clark can be a tough interview. In the Masseduction era alone, she made some writers crawl into a pink box just to talk to her. She used her phone to prerecord bored stock answers to boring What’s It Like to Be a Woman in Rock–type questions. (Much of the lousy online discourse she inspires concerns her status as a prominent Woman in Rock.) She gave a GQ profiler a hard time in 2019. And last month, writer Emma Madden, assigned an interview with Clark by an unnamed publication, posted (and later deleted) the transcript under the headline “St. Vincent Told Me to Kill This Interview” on her personal website, explaining that the artist’s PR firm had leaned on the unnamed publication to spike the story, as Clark was allegedly “terrified of this interview coming out.” (Ed. note: Madden has contributed to The Ringer.)

It’s a mess, and a somewhat baffling one, though it’s clear that the most contentious part of Madden’s interview (archived here) concerns Clark’s father, who went to prison for his involvement in a $43 million stock-manipulation scheme, which sparked some tabloid interest back when his rock star daughter was dating supermodel Cara Delevingne. “Pops was in the clink for 10 years, and he’s out,” Clark told EW last week—hence the album title Daddy’s Home, whose title track addresses this fraught family secret with a disarming forthrightness:

I signed autographs in the visitation room
Waiting for you the last time, inmate 502
Daddy’s home
You still got it in your government green suit
And I look down and out in my fine Italian shoes
And we’re tight as a Bible with the pages stuck like glue
Yeah, you did some time, well I did some time too

The track’s impressively languid pace—bolstered by funk-adjacent Wurlitzer organ burps and punctuated by Clark’s nicotine-raspy screams—is such that it takes her 60 seconds or so to sing all that. As dirty pop-star laundry goes, this is a pleasingly illicit peek behind the curtain, but “Daddy’s Home,” as a piece of music, is so odd, so swampy, so slow-eyed and sharp-elbowed that it’s a shame if the song’s legacy is to inspire impassioned arguments about whether Clark should now have to answer tough questions about the American carceral state. Once you get past the gnarly factual backstory and the elaborate fictional persona of Daddy’s Home—Clark is also “Daddy” now, you see, in part because, as she’s explained in many recent interviews, she spent much of COVID lockdown working on her tile-grouting and plumbing skills and whatnot—you can better appreciate this record as a triumphantly bizarre multimedia spectacle that earns its loopier affectations.

For example! St. Vincent played the single “Pay Your Way in Pain” on Saturday Night Live in April, and honestly I’m into all of it: the manspreading choreography, the blonde wig, the vintage microphone, and Clark’s genuinely weird rapport with her backup singers. “Do you know what I want?” she coos; “Whaddya want? Whaddya want?” they wail back at her. I’m into it. This person is often deeply frustrating, but she is never, ever, ever boring.

So sit with Daddy’s Home for a spell, and block out as much of the noise around it, and her, as you possibly can. Clark’s weary delivery of the opening line “Last night’s heels / On the morning train” on the hazy “Down and Out Downtown.” The dreamy pedal-steel solo on the country-fried “Someone Like Me,” as provided by veteran pedal-steel guru Greg Leisz. (Clark is arguably one of the best guitarists of her generation, but doesn’t do much shredding here, alas; like her, plenty of her fans probably wish she could just play guitar all day.) The extra-woozy ballad “Live in the Dream,” which sounds like side two of Abbey Road chopped and screwed, and makes the case for vibrant backup singers Fiddmont and Hathaway as this album’s sneaky MVPs. (They howl and moan and ululate with a fervor that brings to mind Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.) The Maximum ’70s of it all gets a little oppressive: Probably we didn’t need a song called “Candy Darling,” and “Like the heroines of Cassevettes / I’m underneath the influence daily” is probably overselling it. But the very next lines on “The Laughing Man,” another subaquatic Abbey Road fever dream, are my favorites on the whole record:

’Member when
We were kids
Best of friends
All grass stains and chicken dinners
Menthol mouths and secret stitches
Half-pipes and Playstation
Suicidal ideation

Probably some great personal stories there, and probably Clark would rather cartwheel off a moving train than spell those stories out in yet another interview. Daddy’s Home gives you a lot to talk about, but the less actual talking everyone does, the better.