Album Review: Clairo – Sling

[FADER/Republic/Polydor; 2021]

Clairo‘s inclination towards subtlety and nuance appears severely at odds within today’s frantic attention economy. Claire Cottrill, a young gifted songwriter who achieved startling fame through a viral YouTube hit in 2017, spiralled into a musical trajectory where her understated, no-frills vernacular could make its principal mark. 2019’s excellent debut album Immunity was the perfect pipeline between Gen Z-mainstream pop fans and older indie rock connoisseurs who still play Pinback’s Summer Of Abaddon to death. It’s a crisp and supple collection of songs that thankfully depart from early, rather clumsy experimentations in pop maximalism, homing in on Cottrill’s warm, lived-in vocals. The songs address themes like bisexuality, depression and illness with a deftness and poise of someone figuring things out in private, and making the ‘figuring out’ part of that equation sound reaffirming and crystalline.

On her second album, Sling, Cottrill carves out even more time and space to pronounce her thoughts and feelings with the private urgency of a diary entry. With Jack Antonoff – a producer who perpetually amplifies the strengths of his high-profile collaborators – she reimagines the lush, lotus-eating panorama established by 70s icons like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Carole King within her own frame of reference. The emphasis here is on ‘reimagines’: the spangly, benevolent piano cadence of “Amoeba” is reminiscent of Wilco’s “Theologians”, but is underpinned by sleek shards of chorus guitars. There’s a restraint and discomfort to the arrangement that brings a sobering, unsettling effect, all of it intent on magnifying Cottrill’s concisely stripped-down lyricism. As the song progresses, it adds some nimble but funky Stevie Wonder-ish keys for good measure to give it a spring in its step. Indeed, “Amoeba” progresses similarly to breaking in a pair of new shoes until the fabric bends to the shape of your feet.

On Sling, a lot of Cottrill’s broken, lingering musings get ample latitude to gasp for air and resolve themselves. The velveteen strummer “Blouse” is proof you don’t need to pull out all the stops in order to achieve righteous devastation. The song is a drowsy diatribe against male misogyny in the music industry, sung with the steely fatigue of someone who encounters these discomfiting interactions far too often. The coup-de-grace line is just crushing in its hushed, anemic candor: “If touch can make them hear / then touch me now,” she deadpans, as mournful strings peer out from the horizon. The song bears a sonic resemblance to Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes”, and harnesses a similar penchant for acidic avowals that approximate the farcical.

Significantly enough, Sling’s instrumentation seems wholly organic; her past flirtations with contemporary R&B, neo-disco and indie rock entirely evaporated. It feels very much like a dusty, nondescript room that’s been lived in: a chaotic shamble of your favorite books, notes, drawings and records scattered but close by – instead of neatly stored in the cupboards. As counterpoint to the (now rather quaint) lavish romanticism of Sunset Boulevard that feels so synonymous with the album’s sonic touchstones, Cottrill and Antonoff keep things distinctly frugal and monochrome within Sling’s nexus of dreamlike progressions. The music seems to wander within a hypnophobic state, a strange but comforting delirium that seems to unlock Cottrill’s lyrical strengths. On “Harbor” she sings “I don’t have to defend what I feel,” as glockenspiel and acoustic guitars hover around her voice like underwater reflections.

Clairo is keen to allow the songs to unravel at their own pace, allowing the music to accommodate both the words and more unspoken sentiments. The songs often gradually unshackle into disembodied states, as if they’re summoned almost on the spot. “Joanie”, named after Cottrill’s dog, revels in a playful sonority: briskly – yet somehow seamlessly – the music veers from an eased private bedroom setting to a very brief flirt with Dan Fogelberg-ish piano balladry. Then it dissolves into a very free-form jam segment that’s very delicately adorned with additional flourishes from Cottrill and Antonoff: this part seems to embody a necessary retreat to some form of peace in mind.

“For the first time it feels good to fall in between the ones I love / and the ones that faded,” she sings on “Little Changes”, appearing relieved she landed in a creative zone that compliments her personal needs, desires and dreams. Sling may not offer many universal rallying cries or rousing choruses from artists that break through in similar fashion as Clairo. But it does compel you to lean in and listen a bit more closely to what Claire Cottrill has orbiting around her inquisitive mind. Sling is an intimate, tender heart-to-heart where muted confessions finally have their day.