Music

St. Vincent’s Newest Record Is Also Her Worst

Maybe the elusive chanteuse should remain a little more elusive.

A woman with blonde hair and black highlights stares off-camera. The walls behind here are blue and there is a window in the back.
St. Vincent via YouTube.

History paints the 1970s singer-songwriter movement as a case of artists crawling out of the collapsing framework of 1960s utopianism, dizzy and unsure of anything much bigger than themselves, their fracturing relationships, their spiritual crises, or their drug problems. These days, scholars are also pointing out the unprecedented ways the work of women singer-songwriters from that era paralleled what feminist activists were doing at the same time—asserting that the personal is also the political. But a stigmatized association between the self-expressing solo acoustic performer and egotistical indulgence lingered. It’s one of the reasons that indie rock solo artists from the 1990s and 2000s often preferred to operate under what I call bandonyms, stage names that could double as pseudo-band-names (think of Smog, Cat Power, the Silver Jews, the Mountain Goats), because it seemed more cool and flexible but also held any presumption that their music was somehow “confessional” at a remove.

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Annie Clark, who performs under the moniker St. Vincent, was on the tail end of the group of artists who took up that strategy—her first album came out in 2007, when the cultural mood was starting to shift toward the performative personal disclosure that now permeates much of media. She’s kept up her resistance to such expectations throughout her career, in music that’s generally emphasized virtuosity and conceptual stylistics over direct narrative, ever-shifting theatrical and visual self-presentations, and alternately insouciant and prickly reactions to the press. (The attendant gossip became especially invasive after she was romantically linked with actual celebrity-celebrities such as Cara Delevigne and Kristen Stewart.) In some interviews for her last album, 2017’s Masseduction, Clark sat in a bright pink box with a dictaphone at her side to play back stock responses to anything she considered a hack question.

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So it came as a bit of a surprise that with the new St. Vincent album Daddy’s Home, Clark specifically reaches back to some of the sounds of the singer-songwriter era (along with arena rock and, as ever for this Bowie-loving artist, glam). What’s more, she disclosed in advance that some of the material, mainly the track that gives the record its tongue-in-cheek title, is inspired by the fact that her own father was recently released from a decade-long prison stint for multi-million-dollar financial fraud. Predictably, people leaped to the conclusion that the elusive Clark now wanted to bare her soul.

It soon became clear how untrue that was. In April, in the runup to Daddy’s Home, Clark drew online flack after a British journalist revealed that their interview had been spiked (by an unnamed publication) under pressure from Clark’s people. But when the writer, Emma Madden, published the transcript of their conversation, Clark did seem like she’d massively overreacted to questions that were at most awkwardly earnest, not aggressively pushy.

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That foofaraw may have helped condition early responses to Daddy’s Home, some of which seemed disappointed that Clark doesn’t sincerely follow through on her feints toward autobiography—that she couldn’t relax her control-freak tendencies enough to be more generous with herself. Some listeners have found it cold, distant, or artificial; these have long been indictments from those who dislike St. Vincent’s music in general, but they’re sounding sharper now after people felt like they’d been promised something different.

Daddy’s Home is in fact different than all the previous St. Vincent albums, in that, unlike them, it’s not good. In places, it is almost actively, willfully bad. In the spirit of her stunt with the dictaphone, I could almost credit it as a provocation, Clark telling an invasive culture to be careful what it wishes for. But the record is neither bad nor funny enough to be that. Rather, it feels like by turning to a set of received forms that foreground the artist as narrator against a fairground-cabaret swirl of classic rock instrumentation, Clark has accidentally played to her weakness: She isn’t, and never has been, a particularly good lyricist.

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She’s a seemingly effortlessly strong composer and terrific guitar player in the line of those artists who’ve used the instrument as a sound sculpting tool (from Link Wray to Jimi Hendrix to Adrian Belew); she’s a versatile and charismatic vocalist and performer; she has a great production ear (she co-produces here, as she did on Masseduction, with the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff). But with a few exceptions, whenever she tries to sustain a story or extend a metaphor beyond a verse or two, her phrasing gets clumsy. It sounds like neither conversation nor potently elevated poetic language. She alternately comes off as over-infatuated with her own plays on words and as if she’s carelessly dropping filler syllables where they don’t belong. In her early work, there was a gawky charm to all this, but as her craft’s expanded, her lyrical shortcomings have become more like a mannered Achilles heel, and she’s wisely steered away from it—until now.

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Her songs hit me most when she zeroes in on a few punchy lines for impact, as on Masseduction’s title track, with its refrain, “I can’t turn off what turns me on.” That album’s most praised song, “New York” benefits from a close-mic’d intimate tone, a lovely melody, and an extremely well-calibrated employment of the word “motherfucker.” Maybe not as stunning a piece of writing as it was sometimes made out to be, but it was certainly memorable. The same can’t be said for St. Vincent’s follow-up set, MassEducation, which took “New York” as a template for a salon-piano repackaging of the whole album, stripping away all its boldness and noise. Unfortunately, Daddy’s Home, likewise founded on a more purportedly “organic” sound than most of Clark’s more interesting work, feels more like the sequel to that lesser collection than to the good one.

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There are exceptions. “Daddy’s Home,” which opens with a teasing image of Clark signing autographs in the visitors’ room at the prison and sashays its way around the subject of guilt and innocence (“where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you?”), gets by on its light touch and well-placed, gooseflesh-raising vocal mewls. Late in the running order, there’s a real highlight in “My Baby Wants a Baby” which rips off its melody blatantly from Sheena Easton’s 1981 hit “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” to become a kind of answer song to it, an interrogation of queer domesticity in an era when it can seem like almost as much of an obligatory trap as the hetero kind Easton manically rhapsodized. (Unfortunately, the subject matter also calls to mind Clark’s friend Jenny Lewis’s “Just One of the Guys,” and how much better that song ultimately is.) The track after that, “… At the Holiday Party,” likewise transports one fully into a setting and a mood. And a couple of tracks, like the P.J. Harvey-esque “Down,” go for the sonic jugular like most of St. Vincent’s best music.

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But the album’s nostalgia pastiche feels like too much of a muchness, and Clark’s lyrical blanks and clunkers float around like free radicals damaging otherwise healthy cells. See pretty much all of the lyrics of “The Laughing Man,” for instance, especially the Cassavetes reference: If you’re already namechecking A Woman Under the Influence, why, for god’s sake, make it “underneath the influence” instead? And surely someone around her—Jack? Hello?— could have advised that in the Pink Floyd-masquerade-party song “The Melting of the Sun,” her tributes to Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Marilyn Monroe, and Nina Simone might seem a little glib when conveyed in nursery-like internal rhyme schemes.

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In one of that song’s more self-aware moments, Clark sings of her own work in contrast to those artists, “Me, I never cried/ To tell the truth, I lied.” There’s a neat double meaning there, between “frankly, I lied,” and “I lied in order to tell the truth.” After this album, I can only ask St. Vincent to keep on lying. Lie big and lie hard. And everyone else, please remember that for all the possible impacts and effects that self-disclosure in music can have, it’s only one possible avenue, and often far from the most exciting or interesting one. People, Clark included, are still mourning the likes of David Bowie and Prince years after their deaths, and those guys barely ever gave away a damn thing. (As Bowie sang to the very end.) People howl along full-throated and full-hearted to words in “Life on Mars?” that don’t bear a lick of literal sense. There’s a larger, truer life beyond mundane facts, and the impersonal doesn’t have to be apolitical.

Not that St. Vincent ever has been quite up to that level. But the inheritance of the great women singer-songwriters of the past doesn’t grant listeners any right to keep demanding every female artist’s confessions. It’s her dad, not St. Vincent, who committed the crimes in question here. At least, aside from a few artistic ones.

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