On her album Marry Me, St. Vincent sang, "I'm walking through landmines" in an effort to describe the feeling of pacing through a devastating love affair.
Now, a decade later on her new LP Daddy's Home, St. Vincent is still placing the sharp, piercing angst of emotion into songs that are both delicate and explosive. Here, she's smoother and sleazier than perhaps ever before, blending a barefooted California ambiance with sordid New York gloom. Daddy's Home is a relentlessly sultry album that feels vaguely reminiscent of a snake lying coiled in wait, a vixen waiting in the wings to jump on a married man, or a landmine waiting to explode.
St. Vincent — AKA Annie Clark — has metamorphosed into so many characters across her career and her music that it's hard to keep track of them all. She's been an android-like LA starlet and a "near-future cult leader." She's been the subject of many a thinkpiece conspiracy, famously giving interviewers a hard time and also often fielding rapacious editorializing of her life.
From her relationship with Cara Delevigne to her position as the archetypal "woman in rock" to the brief controversy that swirled when it was revealed that her father was involved in a $43 million stock manipulation scheme, St. Vincent has always been a character.
And yet she's also always been the one writing the story and holding the camera. On this album, she shapeshifts yet again, this time stopping along the way to directly address her most personal fear and shame and becoming more powerful for that.
Call Her Daddy
The album's title, Daddy's Home, is perhaps a reference to the fact that Clark's father was just released after spending 10 years in prison. But it's clear that here St. Vincent is also referring to herself as "daddy," with all the layers and levels of power that entails. On the title track, she sings, "Yeah, you did some time, well I did some time too." She isn't a victim, and she's also no angel.
She's also not one to shy away from the grit and detritus of daily life — the hard partying, the drunken mornings, and the tangles of regret and love that spin through each of these songs, which span wildly different themes but often return to the grit and glamour of 1970s New York, in its equal parts beauty and terror.
In promotions, St. Vincent framed this album as her deep dive into '70s soul, and this is most definitely the case. One of its highlights is the extraordinary six minute opus-like "Live in the Dream," a song that instantly evokes comparisons to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its masterful use of effervescent synths and trippy guitar.
It seems to be about finding someone you love passed out on the floor, holding them in your arms and nursing them back to life. As she drones, "I can't live in the dream / the dream lives in me," you feel both her ache and her power. Perhaps they are the same, drawing strength from each other.
Coincidentally or not, she name drops "dark side of the moon" on the next song, the aptly named "The Melting of the Sun." The song is apocalyptic enough to be a successful metaphor for the climate crisis, yet it's also studded with reference to the psychedelic greats of the 1960s and to some of the most powerful female artists in history. Joni Mitchell is name-dropped alongside Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone, and ultimately the song is a tribute to women who have spoken out about systems of power.
St. Vincent - The Melting Of The Sun (Official Video) www.youtube.com
For all its drama and benzo-faded haziness and masculine energy, the album feels strongest when it's about feminine power and growth. When St. Vincent sings, "Girl, you can't give in now / When you're down, down and out," you can't help but feel genuinely uplifted.
Throughout the album, she plays with vintage iconography and feminine archetypes — the shameful high-heeled return home on the downtown train, or the march to the wedding in the white dress. And yet you get the feeling nothing is too serious, and nothing is permanent.
St. Vincent - Down (Official Video) www.youtube.com
On the last track of the album, she calls forth another legend of '70s New York. The track "Candy Darling" is about Candy Darling, the actress and trans woman who served as a muse for Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, among others, inspiring Lou Reed's iconic "Candy Says."
"I just got pretty obsessed with her," St. Vincent told NME. "I had a friend who was friends with her, and was at her bedside when she died, and I just started thinking about her. I just kept picturing that we were all on the platform seeing her off and she was taking that last uptown train to heaven, slow motion waving with the tiniest bit of subway wind in her hair." Elsewhere, she said, "I just kind of became obsessed with her version of grace."
On "The Laughing Man," a druggy and oceanic ballad that sparkles with backing vocals, she sings an instantly iconic lyric, "If I'm dying, I'm gonna die laughing." Laughter and death are friends here, sitting side by side in the back of a smoky bar. Everything is ephemeral: identity, gender roles, time. Sometimes you just have to have a little fun with it, St. Vincent seems to say here. Put on the mask, and join the dance.
A Summer of Love and Longing
Musically, Daddy's Home is St. Vincent at the top of her game, channelling Bowie with one arm, Pink Floyd on the other, and merging it all with some of the wild abandon of Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
Produced by none other than Jack Antonoff, the album is a swirl of massive synths, sitars, beachy guitars, and ambient vocals that sometimes sound like gospel hymns, other times like screams. It's music made for dancing and sobbing all at once, or perhaps both at the same time. The slow-burning "My Baby Wants a Baby" is perhaps one of the bitchiest danceable numbers in recent memory.
It's hard to pin any of it down into a single narrative. There's something cinematic about it all, something undeniably retro and classic, and maybe that's the point: She's reflecting on her childhood, her father, and the bygone days of glam '70s New York and psychedelic 70s California. She is the film star and the pill-popping mother, the young musician who doesn't want to be a father and the criminal father. If she was once walking on landmines, this album is St. Vincent walking through the ruins of a past explosion, recalling those sensations and channeling the scars they left into song.
And yet somehow, this disjointed retro blur feels perfectly suited to our current moment. "[It's] post-flower-child idealism, but it's pre-disco," Clark said of her inspirations for the record. "It's this period of time that I feel like is analogous to where we are now. We're in the grimy, sleazy, trying-to-figure-out-where-we-go-from-here period."
As we emerge into a summer of post-vaccine love, there's a lot of trauma and growing to be done, and lot of love to give and find amidst it all. It might be too inaccessible to fully embed itself in the tapestry of cultural memory, but if Daddy's Home becomes a classic album of this time in history, it wouldn't be all that surprising.
Amidst all the pills and jewels and speed and longing, there's a strange but true kind of love to be found on this album, and perhaps in this moment in time as we reunite after so long. "You can't hide, no you can't hide from me," St. Vincent sings on "...At The Holiday Party." After a year of hiding, the lights of others' perceptions might feel blinding; they might call forth ghosts of our past. The best we can ask for is rich and elastic music to guide us through the ride into the future.