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St. Vincent, Builder Of Rock Futures, Takes Shelter In The Past

<em>Daddy's Home </em>(out May 14), Annie Clark's sixth album as St. Vincent, takes the sounds and sleaze of early-1970s New York as its aesthetic backdrop.
Zackery Michael
Courtesy of the artist
Daddy's Home (out May 14), Annie Clark's sixth album as St. Vincent, takes the sounds and sleaze of early-1970s New York as its aesthetic backdrop.

There's a scene in Torrey Peters' new novel, Detransition, Baby, where two trans women argue over the enduring legacy of Candy Darling, one of the most memorable stars in Andy Warhol's orbit in late-'60s and early-'70s New York. One character asserts that she was little more than a muse, a blank canvas onto which men like Warhol and Lou Reed (who wrote about her in "Candy Says" and "Walk on the Wild Side") could project their fantasies: "just some helpless languid blonde waiting around for a man to save her and make her famous." In response, the other character lifts her skirt to reveal an enormous, photorealistic portrait of Darling's face tattooed across her thigh. A person's image, when separated from the person, can be tectonic in its meaning or appear as a cheap facsimile: It depends on how many times it's been replicated, the conditions of that replication, and, mostly, whom you ask.

Darling died of lymphoma in 1974, during the last months of her 20s. All that's left of her is the way men documented her life — but those documents persist, and keep tumbling into new generations. In 2013, Reed performed in public for the last time in his life alongside Anohni, the trans singer who picked a famous photo of Darling on her deathbed as the cover of her 2005 album I Am a Bird Now; the song they sang together was "Candy Says." Today, nearly 50 years after her death, she appears as a character in a St. Vincent album, a mascot of a certain era of New York. The steadfastly retro Daddy's Home winds down with a song named for Darling, in which Annie Clark professes her devotion in the style of a man down on his luck, trying to win back a great love with a stale gesture: "Candy Darling, I brought bodega roses for your feet."

Fourteen years after her first album as St. Vincent, Clark makes a sharp turn in time with Daddy's Home, her sixth. Until now, her music had largely tendriled toward the future. The early baroque-pop sound of 2007's Marry Me and 2009's Actor, inflected by stints playing guitar for Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, tautened on 2011's breakthrough Strange Mercy, an art-rock marvel whose tightly coiled melodies and bold, raucous guitar work earned St. Vincent a sure spot among the burgeoning millennial indie rock canon. She copiloted a suitably offbeat album, Love This Giant, alongside former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in 2012; the fruits of their intergenerational conversation fed into her acclaimed 2014 self-titled LP, where Clark cast herself as a grey-haired cult leader basking in the fawning adoration of her followers. In 2017, she paired with Jack Antonoff — best known for co-producing albums by Lorde and Taylor Swift — for the neon-hued MASSEDUCTION, an exuberant study in the nuances of desire, of wanting and being wanted, seeing and being seen.

Throughout her work to date, Clark's guitar has served as a reliable duet partner, an instrument readily tortured into producing alien sound. There's the sputtering chainsaw rumble in the solo of the Strange Mercy single "Cruel," the detuned lead flaying the bridge to Actor's "Marrow," the corroded trumpet call between verses on the self-titled's "Regret." Her guitar appears less as accompaniment to her singing than as a second voice, a wordless foil to her vivid, disarming lyrics.

On Daddy's Home, Clark retracts that probing tentacle and retreats deep into her dad's vinyl cabinet. She's aimed for period accuracy in the writing and production, furnishing her studio largely with instruments and equipment that were popular circa 1971. Her guitar, formerly a squealing, squalling, animated force, shrinks back down to six strings and a handful of pickups, producing recognizably pearly tones à la George Harrison or Eric Clapton. As a teaser poster promised, the record can even be purchased on obsolete eight-track tape, a collector's item limited to a run of 500.

Clark began work on the album after her father, convicted of a multi-million dollar stock manipulation scheme, was released from a near-decade's stint in prison. In the music's browns and oranges, its carefully manicured sleaze, Clark excavates competing desires for love, stability and bad behavior. She looks to her lineage — both her literal parents and the artists she considers her ancestors — in order to stabilize herself, to fix her sprawled longing in a legible sequence. On early single "The Melting of the Sun," she supplies capsule vignettes of the many women in her personal pantheon, from Joni Mitchell to Tori Amos to Nina Simone, and then turns the lens back on herself: "Who'm I trying to be? / A benzo beauty queen?"

In its formal qualities, Daddy's Home is faithfully cemented in its frequently romanticized era. The press release situates its stories between the years 1971 and 1975 in downtown New York, though it also bears the hallmarks of certain earlier works: the electric sitar of B.J. Thomas's 1968 hit "Hooked on a Feeling," the searching psychedelic guitar of George Harrison's 1970 post-Beatles debut, All Things Must Pass. Musical and vocal gestures plug tightly into the classics: The way Clark drags her voice across the word "pain" on "Pay Your Way in Pain" echoes David Bowie's treatment of "fame." The vocal harmonies from her backup singers — including Donny Hathaway's daughter Kenya Hathaway, whose presence casts another shadow of a dad — recall the tight-knit interplay of The Pointer Sisters. (This marks the first time Clark has made use of backing singers on a solo album rather than overdubbing her own harmonies.) Clark says she spent time picking apart the harmonic complexities of Stevie Wonder's 1973 song "Golden Lady," trying to apply the lessons of its satisfying key shift to her own writing. The production is warm and analog and frustratingly minimal, more in line with Antonoff's recent work in tightly laminated negative space than the lush and vibrant atmospheres of Clark's professed influences.

The funk, soul, R&B and rock that coursed through the early '70s pop charts tended toward abundance, stacking elements on top of each other to the point where it seemed they might topple but instead locked together in beautiful cohesion. New recording technologies, new genre explorations, and the momentum of concurrent social movements gave much of the period's music an optimistic fervor, a sense of collective anticipation behind corners not yet turned. There is palpable excitement in the voices of Wonder, Sly Stone, Chaka Khan and other future-minded performers recorded in this stretch of time.

By contrast, even though each individual sound on Daddy's Home is period-accurate, there are rarely enough of them to usher in the same mood. Elements stand cleanly apart, afraid to touch, rather than tangling with each other and getting messy. In this environment, Clark sounds more deadpan than thrilled, set apart from her backup singers rather than rollicking with them. This siloing worked on previous St. Vincent records, where individual instruments had enough personality and grit to take center stage at a pronounced distance from their environments. But here, where each gesture is muffled under a curtain of nostalgia, the space points more to deprivation than sophistication — the colorful, overflowing '70s filtered through a restrained, minimalist ear.

This conundrum at least fits the theme. In reflecting on her "outlaw" dad, Clark professes fears of her own excessiveness, the way her misbehavior alienates her from her hopes for herself. "Somebody Like Me" drapes visions of white weddings over the plaintive echo of slide guitars. On "My Baby Wants a Baby," she engages in the terrifying exercise of imagining herself a parent: "What in the world would my baby say? / 'I got your eyes and your mistakes?' " Occasionally, Clark seems to address herself in the second person, as on "...At the Holiday Party," where she sings about someone who pretends to want all the glamour and hedonism in their life "so no one sees you not getting what you need."

In her reanimation of a past just outside her own firsthand memory, Clark collapses the roles of muse and artist, icon and recorder, daddy and baby. She has worked in this volatile spot before, negotiating awareness of the camera on her body in MASSEDUCTION's videos while asserting her role as co-creator of the scene. In the lyrics to "The Melting of the Sun," Clark briefly invokes Marilyn Monroe, the 20th-century icon whose face Warhol famously took as material in his paintings, stamping it out over and over again in surprising colors until its details began to degrade and the overfamiliar image started to look uncanny. Clark casts herself as both Warhol and Monroe in this dynamic: the muse hollowed out through endless replication and the blasé artist doing the replicating.

By the time the needle shakes across "Candy Darling," a smoky, placid ballad sung directly to the late star, Clark is wistful but not broken by the conflicts she's staged for herself. Her focus settles on a figure who, like Monroe, is easy to romanticize, a woman who was fervently documented and then died young, leaving a vacuum around her meaning. Darling's subjectivity was short-lived — she had a say in who she was for only a few years. Rather than speculate on that interiority, its challenges and contradictions, Clark calcifies the image: the blonde hair and red lipstick, seen through a window, "waving from the latest uptown train." She makes one more stamp on the canvas, declares it perfect, and stops at that.

Sasha Geffen is the author of the book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, a history of boundary-pushing expressions of sex and gender in modern pop.

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Sasha Geffen