At last year’s Sundance, Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein premiered a mockumentary they named The Nowhere Inn. Playing augmented versions of themselves, the film cast Brownstein as a director trying to make a documentary that will reconcile Clark’s day-to-day self with her untouchable onstage persona, St Vincent. When the quotidian proves a little humdrum, the Clark character decides to heighten her St Vincentness for the sake of the movie, growing ever more spectacular, concocted and elusive. “I know who I am,” she notes. “What does it matter if anyone else does?”
The unknowability of St Vincent has provided much of her intrigue and also her appeal over the course of five albums (and one collaboration with David Byrne). Yes, there were Grammys, accolades, albums of the year, but the essential question of who really lay beneath the veneer has hovered over much of her career. Accordingly, the vocabulary used to describe Clark and her music has often suggested cleverness rather than emotional heft: arch, meta, provocative; complex, mischievous, ambitious. Critics described her work as if viewed behind glass, and at a distance.
The great surprise of Clark’s sixth album, Daddy’s Home, is its sense of proximity. These are songs that, long after first listen, you find under your fingernails, and scenting your jacket. “Gritty. Grimy. Sleazy,” as she puts it, their lyrics filled with characters wearing “last night’s heels on the morning train,” or turning up “at the holiday party red wine-lipped a little early,” carrying a Gucci purse like “a pharmacy.”
Clark has told how these songs were inspired by “music made in New York between 1971-1975” – a specificity of both time-frame and geography that might seem little more than an exercise in genre-dabbling, were the reason for the inspiration not so devastating.
Two winters ago her father was released from prison, having served time for his part in a multi-million-dollar stock manipulation scheme. Clark began writing this new collection of songs at that time, “closing a loop on a journey that began with his incarceration in 2010.” Her father’s imprisonment and subsequent release had, she explained, led her back to the vinyl he introduced her to in childhood. Records she believes she has “probably listened to more than any other music” in her entire life.
At points, Daddy’s Home can sound like a distant turn through a long-ago radio dial – half-heard flickers of half-remembered songs: “Pay Your Way In Pain”’s echoes of Bowie’s “Fame”, for instance, while “My Baby Wants a Baby” leans heavily on Sheena Easton’s 1980 release “9-5 (Morning Train)”. Throughout, the vocals of Lynne Fiddmont and Kenya Hathaway bob up like Thunderthighs backing Lou Reed.
The effect is not so much musical impersonation, but rather something more immersive; a plunge into the singer’s personal memory bank, a tangible, sensuous experience. The melding of saxophone, synths, Wurlitzer, horns, the extraordinary angles of Clark’s guitar, the stretch and snap of her voice, bring a sense of city heat: they press against your skin and wind round your legs, sultry and thirsty and fevered. Between them, three ‘Humming Interludes’ hang like a haze.
Much of Masseduction felt like a lost, lustful examination of inner emptiness – “the void is back and I’m blinking” as she memorably put it on “Hang On Me”. Daddy’s Home suggests a richer inner life, charged with internal desires: “Where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you?” she asks on the title track. “I can’t live in
the dream,” she notes elsewhere. “The dream lives in me.”
There are a lot of trapped people on this record, whether that is the incarcerated (the jelly-legged cabaret of the title track addresses her father’s jail time head-on), or those wanting to flee from a relationship (“You make a home I run away and the story starts again,” she sings on “My Baby Wants A Baby”), or the caged bird of “Candy Darling”. Others still explore all the ways we try to set ourselves free: pharmaceuticals, liquor, crashed cars, bodega roses, suicidal ideation. The result is something close, dark and airless.
And yet there is a deep and buoyant beauty here too: the combination of Clark’s voice, feathered and sweet, against surges of brass on “…At The Holiday Party”, for instance. The drowsy, inebriated drift of “Live In The Dream”. And throughout, the warm, buffering presence of Fiddmont and Hathaway. On previous records, Clark’s tales were told in a manner that was brittle and upright and shiny; here she sounds to have loosened her grip: the edges are softer, the layers are denser, the mood a little more mañana.
It would be wrong to mistake sonic warmth for knowability. Wrong, too, to suppose that these songs are any less rigidly devised and constructed. And yet, listening to Daddy’s Home brings a sense of exhalation, a filling out, an openness, that is as unexpected as it is wonderful. Yes she’s still arch and meta and provocative, still complex and mischievous and ambitious. But on this record, Annie Clark seems to stand just a little closer.