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For St. Vincent, “home” is a relative thing; she doesn’t often touch exactly the same base, musically, and no one will ever accuse her of making the same album twice. So if you loved the exquisitely visceral, electronic tension of 2017’s “Masseduction” and its nearly operatic art-rock heights, prepare for something entirely different on “Daddy’s Home.” If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already done that happy prep work, given that she already teased months back that she’d be exploring 1970  influences like Stevie Wonder this time around. Add a dash of Sly and the Family Stone and “Daddy” should be, like, a family affair, right?

What you get on “Daddy’s Home” is more complicated than that, even if you’ve braced yourself for change, and especially if those preliminary notes might have hyped you for a funk-fest. Hot fun in the summertime, this album is not, as the anxieties of Annie Clark and her stage alter ego, or the ones she projects onto her other subjects, remain intact. With its absence of either 2020s-style or Me Decade bangers. this might be her least excitable record, or at least her musically calmest since her pre-alt-rock-queen origins. But it does deliver on her promise of bringing clavinet back (or the hope we had for that, anyway, upon hearing her stated reference points). You have assuredly not heard this much Wurlitzer electric piano in one place since your Spotify playlist got stuck on Steely Dan. Flutes and saxes make cameo appearances, and a pair of wailing female backup vocalists pipe up on every track, except for an interlude or two. This is the first album of the modern age, or probably any age, where I’ve ever been on the verge of forming the following words as a complaint: “Too much sitar.”

So the question may come down to: Is all this 1970s mellowness gold? I’d venture to say that it is, although I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling that its hazier tone is a letdown after the explicit synthesizer excitability of “Masseduction” — which, of course, some felt was a betrayal of the guitar-favoring rock-band ethos of 2014’s “St. Vincent.” (Maybe the crowd that favored that period will be cycling back around to “She’s got her mojo back” now… or maybe that’ll wait for next time, who knows?) Purely on a sonic level, she and co-producer Jack Antonoff — the superproducer (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey) who’s returning from “Masseduction,” but unrecognizably so — have pulled off the rather tricky stunt of using instrumentation that is 100% out of a mid-1970s liner-notes checklist in the service of coming up with something that really doesn’t sound anything like a 1970s record, in the end. Well, it does and it doesn’t. You’d need more than the fingers on two hands to count the times you will be thinking to yourself: “Those tom-toms sound very analog.” But Antonoff is not about to refuse to deploy all the reverb and other effects he has at his disposal to create spatial qualities that keep the record from ever becoming the museum piece the credits tell you it half-wants to be.

Lyrically, a reference to “benzos” is just about the only explicit suggestion that this album might be taking place in the 1970s; further on, a reference to having grown up on PlayStation and a shout-out to Tori Amos as a heroine are practically the only reasons to be certain that it’s not a period piece. For most intents and purposes, Clark putting on a blond wig and (in videos) and taking on the visual as well as musical iconography of a decade shortly before she was born may come down to a case of glorified dress-up  — and to give us all something to talk about. Is it true that the album is a de facto tribute to her father’s record collection, even though he only figures into the very present-day title song? Is it more about using her newly adopted look to come off as a cross between actress Gena Rowlands (“Like the heroines of Cassavetes, I’m underneath the influence daily,” she sings at one point) and long-gone trans icon Candy Darling ( subject and namesake of the album’s big closing ballad)?

One thing is for certain: these nostalgic trappings lend the record a sense of play, which is not just a trademark of St. Vincent’s chameleonic career but a quality that’s fairly key in lending some balance to oft-heavy subject matter — shame, loneliness, death, unfulfilled dreams. With all that to deal with, why not put a wig on it?

The album’s opening track and first single, “Pay Your Way in Pain,” might have set up a slightly misleading impression of what the album would sound like; it’s the first and last track to offer that blatant a synth line. (Modular synth, the credits are careful to point out.) That electro-throb does provide an effective segue between the last album and this one, anyway. And it sets up that, for all the fun trappings. St. Vincent is going to mean it, when she turns the last word of “I wanna be loooooved” into a 17-second howl of desperation primal enough to ensure the tune won’t end up as background music in a Starbucks near you.

That opening track’s suggestion that a bankrupt woman might “pay your way in shame” is followed by the heroine taking an early-morning subway walk of shame in “Down and Out Downtown.” That song’s opening line, “Last night’s heels on the morning train,” follows a similar reference to shoes in the opening number, where the narrator makes a visit to the local park to enjoy the innocence of children at play but “the mothers saw my heels and they said I wasn’t welcome.” Come the third song, “Daddy’s Home,” she’s visiting her father in prison, and even there, her footwear somehow betrays her:You still got it in your government green suit / And I look down and out in my fine Italian shoes.” Somewhere, someone has set to work on a “Sexual and class signifiers in the work of Annie Clark” grad thesis before the album is one-fourth over, but before it gets caught up in the politics of pumps, it moves on to “The Melting of the Sun” and the dark side of the moon.

“Live in the Dream” is the one track where St. Vincent gets truly specific about a musical antecedent, and it’s not Stevie or Sly: it’s Pink Floyd. The track starts off sounding like it’s riffing on the riff of “Us and Them,” before she rouses someone to consciousness with the soft words, “Hello, do you know where you are?,” and suddenly it’s “Comfortably Numb” — a touchstone that doesn’t seem any less relevant when she uses the song’s final minute to launch into the album’s only guitar solo, which just happens to be as close to David Gilmour as she’s ever going to get. It’s unlike her to get this blatant in a shout-out…

…until, that is, you get to the following number, “The Melting of the Sun,” which, after glancingly referencing the actual title Floyd’s most famous album, moves on to some of the women you imagine being more crucial to St. Vincent’s lineage: “Saint Joni ain’t no phony / Smoking reds where Furry sang the blues,” she sings, admiringly, before calling up Amos’ historic “Me and a Gun,” and Nina Simone, as part of her roll call: “Brave Tori told her story / Police said they couldn’t catch the man / Proud Nina got subpoenaed singing ‘Mississippi good goddamn.'” And then, as a self-aware punchline, acknowledging her own image as a cooler cucumber, she adds: “But me, I never cried / To tell the truth I lied.” Although at first the line might seem an admission of a shortcoming, it’s really a kind of boast: St. Vincent has always been a proponent of the school that putting on a costume can be as personally revelatory as getting naked. “To tell the truth I lied” isn’t just a double entendre — for someone with as big a closetful of personas as Clark, it’s a statement of purpose.

It’s hard to resist a good meta moment like that one. But I’m happy to report that “Daddy’s Home” isn’t reliant on those any more than it’s ultimately reliant on the 1970s conceit to work as an album that’s full of some fairly plain-spoken emotional truths. You wouldn’t think that an album that starts off with songs about bereftness and shame needs to dig a lot deeper as it goes along, but “Daddy’s Home” does anyway, as the songs hit upon a succession of universal hurts.

Along the way, there is exactly one detour into pure cockiness as a response to hurt — “Down,” which ironically as close as the album gets to really being up. Having suffered a flesh wound, Clark sings, “Tell me who hurt you, no wait, I don’t care to hear an excuse why you think you can be cruel,” and then a couplet for the ages: “Go get your own shit / Get off of my tit.” We are well outside the realm of her vaunted art-rock here and well into something like therapy-funk, with “Down” also settling into a harder-hitting groove that’s closest to what those Sly and Stevie promises might’ve had you imagining.

It wouldn’t really be the 1970s, or ’70s-like, without some acoustic guitar finger-picking and steel guitar along with all that clavinet, both of which show up in healthy amounts throughout the wistful “Somebody Like Me,” which brings in no less a pedal-pusher than Greg Leisz for an extended cameo. “Does it make you an angel or some kind of freak to believe enough in somebody like me?” she asks, in about as vulnerable a question as anyone has ever slipped into a putative love song. There’s no good answer provided to that question, of course — “I guess we’ll see who was the free / Time tells us things that you and I can’t see” is all a restless lover can conclude — but these are the loveliest four minutes she’s ever put down on a record.

Until she gets even further into the album. “The Laughing Man” is a song that anyone who ever dealt with bereavement will identify with, as she mourns a deceased childhood friend and takes offense to chirping birds, “singing like the day is perfect, but to me they sound psychotic.” “If life’s a joke, then I’m dying laughing,” says the chorus, nearly making a greeting card out of grief. The real nostalgia of the album, trappings aside, comes in the half-amusing parade of childhood memories that come to mind as she sends her friend into the ether: “All grass stains and chicken dinners menthol mouths and secret stitches half pipes and Playstation suicidal ideation.”

“My Baby Wants a Baby” takes off from a seeming joke of a title to ruminate rather seriously on what it means to choose not to be part of the child-bearing brigade — finding rueful humor as well as real fear in the non-parental life’s pros (“I wanna play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves / Only dress up if I get paid”) and societal cons (“I won’t have no legacy… / Won’t even have your sympathy / No one will scream that song I made / Won’t throw no roses on my grave / They’ll just look at me and say, where’s your baby?”).

Amid all these mortal concerns, there’s something almost relaxed about the sense of sadness in the album’s best track, “…At the Holiday Party,” in which Clark trains her attention on a woman whose facade she sees cracking at a Christmas soiree: “Your Gucci purse a pharmacy / Pretend to want these things so no one sees you not getting not getting what you need.” The lyrics are dark — so much unfulfillment to go around — but as the warmth of a horn section comes in and the rhythm section finds a pocket, it hits a pocket of hope, too, if only because those ever-present backup singers are promising, as a Greek chorus of besties: “You can’t hide from me.”

St. Vincent has done her own share of hiding over the years — starting with the nom de plume — and you’d be foolish to think of “Daddy’s Home” as some kind of all-out confessional coming-out, even if she does invite that reading by referencing her real-life dad’s jail stint (and her “signing autographs in the visitation room”) in the title track. Now, you could say, she’s hiding behind a Wurlitzer, a Mellotron and a period mini-dress. And she probably is, but it’s, as always with her records, hiding in plain sight. And maybe more on this album than others, because she’s turned down the volume — as much as you might miss something as thrilling as the “Pills”-popping of the previous album — it’s easier to hear the heart that’s long been there at the center of the slightly chilly guises.

But if she’s slightly closer to coming off as a BFF now, one of those F’s surely still stands for freak. “Trying to seem sane makes you seem so strange,” she sings, like someone who’s long reconciled herself to being a lass insane, and is the better friend and artist for it.

 

St. Vincent Brings the Sounds of the ’70s Home on a Mellower, Emotionally Richer ‘Daddy’s Home’: Album Review

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