Album Review: St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

[Loma Vista; 2021]

Annie Clark has been killing it for over a decade now – not just interviews – she’s delivered consistent Bowie-esque transformations across numerous LPs since her 2007 debut album at St. Vincent, Marry Me. To hear her now, compared to then, it’s hard to believe it’s the same person. The shy persona she employed on her debut is an afterthought now, and with her sixth album Daddy’s Home she’s made another leap of faith with her fans – presenting herself as a funky disco fiend singing a love letter to her father and showing more of her dark side.

It’s not particularly surprising though; Clark has never made the same album twice. Her sophomore album, Actor was a rollicking affair, one that showed off her masterful guitar work and penchant for understated hooks. Strange Mercy is often considered by many to be her magnum opus. That record will be 10 years old this September, and it was at this point, post-Strange Mercy, that Clark began her ascension to pop stardom while systematically challenging her fanbase to appreciate these sharp left turns in her performance and appearance. The anticipated curveball with Daddy’s Home isn’t as surprising as initially expected; in fact, it’s more of a regression into familiar guitar music that one would have expected given the electronic influence on her last album, MASSEDUCTION.

While being in a constant state of evolution, Clark has pushed herself to take risks more often than some would even humor themselves with considering. Early singles for Daddy’s Home showed off a different side of St. Vincent, a more vulnerably frantic Annie Clark who appeared plucked from The Deuce or Boogie Nights – stuck in the past with her fur coats and bleach blonde hair. She brought this persona to her performance of “Pay Your Way In Pain” on Saturday Night Live, which was contended as either brilliant or pitiful depending on who you ask. But, if you ask her, “the show is only getting started.” This makes “Pain” the perfect introduction to Daddy’s Home, as it incorporates a lot of what’s to come, but doesn’t give enough to truly categorize the album.

The gradual album rollout depicted Daddy’s Home as this funky exploration – which it is, to some extent – but it’s more about the era that was 70s music. There are swirls of experimental doo-wop and disco on “Live in the Dream”, creating something like an avant-garde ABBA, a descriptor no one thought of until 2021. Clark’s always been a musical sponge, but Daddy’s Home is the first time her influences have really taken a prominent hold of her music. “The Melting of the Sun” meshes piano keys with a dash of Pink Floyd for good measure, an influence one would never have tack on to St. Vincent previously, but it’s here in abundance.

The most obvious throwback to Clark’s old formulas comes with “Down and Out Downtown”, a subdued and mellow funk number that manages to endearingly find a link between this new aesthetic to her older ones while still giving them all time to shine. “Hey I was flying / Over the empire state / Then you kissed me / And I crashed again,” she sings, soaring above the grind of a background choir and thin guitar plucking. “…At the Holiday Party” wouldn’t feel out of place on Strange Mercy, as it’s replete with day tripper pacing and some old school backup singer accompaniment that’s reminiscent of Motown and Solid Gold; it’s peculiar but welcoming.

Fans of Clark’s unfuckwithable guitar work will largely be pleased as it returns in abundance here. The lack of strings on MASSEDUCTION made her more rock-loving fans feel abandoned, but their return here isn’t in the infectious hooks and soaring choruses but instead to accentuate the morose feelings Clark is exhibiting this go round. Daddy’s Home isn’t a celebration by any means – Clark’s father was in prison for nine years starting in 2010, missing her formative years in indie rock and only returning during her downtime between albums.

This is the second collaboration with producer everyman Jack Antonoff, and while the guitars are back, Clark’s band is not. Almost all the heavy lifting is done by Clark, who is a marvel at mastering the machinery she uses on her albums. There’s no limit to her abilities on Daddy’s Home – she even uses a fucking sitar on “Down” for crying out loud – but she still finds time to play it close to the chest and not get too weird. In fact, “Down” features some of her tightest songwriting; it’s compact but expansive and doesn’t skimp on powerful instrumentation. As her stock rises, Clark is diligently working to make each album stand on its own, and Antonoff has a lot to do with that this go round. His co-production work with Clark is truly alluring; they can elevate her to the clouds with “Somebody Like Me” but still convey the grime of “Pay Your Way In Pain” seamlessly.

Sheena Easton’s iconic “Morning Train (9 to 5)” (written by Florrie Palmer) gets an update via the lovely “My Baby Wants a Baby”, where Clark rewrites the lyrics to show less endearment and instead lace some venom inside its nurturing tone – “Then I couldn’t stay in bed all day / I couldn’t leave like my daddy / and I wouldn’t be your only baby anymore.” We’ve not heard Clark do a lot of covers or reinterpretations, but “My Baby Wants a Baby” works on every level as a beautiful tribute to Palmer and Easton, while also making it entirely her own exploitation of her emotional wreckage. It wears a cover page of love but within its pages it’s all piercing self-confession – “I won’t have no legacy cause I won’t write no symphony / I won’t have no streets named after me,” she sighs. Given her contribution to music, one might disagree, but Daddy’s Home isn’t just about her father – Clark is pointing that critical lens on herself and doesn’t hold back. She’s “under the influence daily” on “The Laughing Man” and calls to question whether she deserves any type of adulation on “Somebody Like Me.”

It’s a vivid enough image that carries through the album. During the closer, “Candy Darling”, it’s easy to envision her starlet persona all dressed up leaning back into a vinyl embroidered armchair letting her cigarette ash on the musty hotel carpet while she croons “I never wanna leave / your perfect candy dream.” There’s an aura of depression and longing dripping off her words all over Daddy’s Home. She’s transitioned so many times over the years that it’s hard to know what’s real, but this collection of songs suggests that, beneath the wigs and period get-up, it may be the first time we’ve truly seen Annie Clark for who she really is.

The final result finds her not back-pedalling, but revisiting her former glories from a new perspective. It’s a topsy-turvy balancing act that she’s playing, but for the most part it’s successful. Clark flips between that groovy funk of the 70s, then back to her guitar rock days, and then, sure, she employs some more experimental and electronic moments that might come across as jarring to some. But it’s also just part of the brand that is St. Vincent in 2021.