JUNE AOTM: Daddy’s Home – St Vincent

St Vincent aka Annie Clark, has been a major part of my musical landscape for the last decade. I latched on to her first album, Marry Me, in 2007, and immediately loved its slightly wonky sensibilities wrapped up in brilliant songs, and it’s been a mostly highly rewarding experience seeing her career and her ambitions grow with every album. She’s now pretty close to being a bonafide star – certainly an indie star anyway – and I saw that first hand as she effortlessly and brilliantly headlined the End of the Road festival a couple of years back. My wife, Caroline, absolutely adores her too – maybe even more than me – so she’s an artist who has been played to death in our house over the years.

But I’ve long ago come to realise that she’s a Marmite artist. Many friends to whom I’ve recommended her have come back with a blank look on their faces – they don’t ‘get’ her at all. I do kind of understand it – her sound can be very angular and jagged, and she wields her incredible guitar playing (more on that later) like a weapon. She’s wilfully, unapologetically arty, and it can often feel like she’s hiding herself behind a series of different personas. She can make obtuse decisions – like starting an album as brilliant as Strange Mercy with a track as hard to listen to as Chloe in the Afternoon. She seems to delight in setting fire to her previous incarnation, and I can see that might feel frustrating to an artist you’re trying to invest. Me, I fucking love her. I love trying to find the real Annie hiding, sometimes in plain sight, in her songs. I love the way she paints a picture with a song. Just try and listen to Year of the Tiger (also on Strange Mercy). It’s like a little movie.

Funnily enough, me and Annie’s first real musical differences came on her biggest album to date, the behemoth that was Masseduction. Recorded with hot shot producer Jack Antonoff, he of Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift album fame, it was a radical departure to the angular, electronic indie rock of her previous work. It was unapologetically pop with a capital P, with more nods to Kylie and Robyn than her indie peers. It was a critical and sales hit, along with single Los Ageless, and opened her up to a new audience (and led to those festival headlining moments). Friends who don’t like Annie C have complained they find her a bit cold. I never felt that at all until Masseduction. It just didn’t connect with me. It felt a little calculated, and it was – well, just a lot less original than anything she’d done until that point. She was trampling on much more familiar territory and I just couldn’t get as excited.

So when I heard that Annie was channeling 70s rock and Bowie on the new album, then frankly, I was chomping at the bit. I wanted to hear something more organic, something more emotionally connected. And I wanted to hear that incredible guitar back up high in the mix. We should mention her guitar playing for a minute. If you haven’t seen her life, it’s hard to quite grasp how good she is. She’s Prince-level good. She’s UNBELIEVABLE. I think she’s probably the most talented guitar player of her generation.

Pay Your Way in Pain did nothing to dampen my excitement. What a fucking song it is. And what an opening track it is on the album. It’s a proper rock song, and it sets up that mixture of emotional pain and retro irony quite beautifully. And then the came the new look for the record. Blonde wig, leather jacket. All very playful, all very Annie Clark. But also this extraordinary backstory about her father’s incarceration (which by the way she has NEVER mentioned up until this point!). Daddy’s Home? Nudge nudge wink wink. And then came the 5 star reviews, and lots of them.

So what did I feel when I started to listen to the whole album. Initially, I was just so, so happy. I loved it almost immediately. It was exactly what I was hoping for. Perhaps more downbeat and slow than I was expecting, but it seemed to wear its heart on its sleeve as much as you could ever hope from a musician who’s often been careful to cover her tracks.

The big surprise was that this was also made with Jack Antonoff. Who’d have thought it? In fact, the two of them recorded quite a lot of the album between them. Did Antonoff allow Clark to find that musical voice she was looking for, did he just give her that freedom? Or was there still something a little bit calculated about it? That was the only nagging thing I had in my head now and again as I listened.

And then…the backlash started. I must say, in the interests of balance, that it’s hardly that much of a backlash – as of today, it still has a whopping 86 on Metacritic. But there were a couple of extraordinary reviews – one from Pitchfork that seemed to damn it with faint praise, as well a much more damning piece on Slate that argued that this was her worst album, comparing her unfavourably to fellow pop chameleons Prince and Bowie. Both of those articles contain some pretty unbelievable accusations (Pitchfork – it’s racially insensitive for St V to mention Nina Simone alongside white artists. Slate – she’s actually never been that good a lyricist. That latter one made me laugh out loud. ARE YOU FUCKING JOKING ME, MATE?).

The whiff of double standards on female musicians, particularly singular artists with their own vision, hangs heavy in the air. And I don’t think that for a second that Annie Clark is asking to be compared to Prince or Bowie. But let’s leave some of the stupidity of some of the worst comments, and ask the tricky question – have they got a point? Is this album the real deal, or is it a kind of well-executed pastiche of a kind of mythical musical past? I suspect that as a collective, we’re going to end up on different sides of that question. I can’t wait for the pod!

My own experience is this. There are a few obvious big, brilliant belters – Pay Your Way, Down, Melting of the Sun. Down might be my favourite song on the album. And some have called The Melting of the Sun a bit clunky. I think it’s utterly glorious – a straight down the line love letter to those who’ve paved the way for her. And the analogy of the patriarchy melting like the sun is delicious.

But actually, on repeat listening, it’s not the 70s pastiche, or the sitar playing (though I LOVE the sitar playing!) or the Bowie schtick that’s sticking with me. It’s the songwriting. And it’s the smaller songs that have come to be amongst my favourites. Down and Out Downtown is just beautiful, At The Holiday Party is sad and compassionate, Somebody Like Me feels like Annie reckoning with herself and her personas in a really moving way. And right in the centre, the extraordinary Live in the Dream. Yes, it owes a hell of debt to Pink Floyd, and also to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in lyrical theme, but I just can’t get enough of it. I’ve listened to that one track to death and I find it genuinely moving.

There are odd things about the album that jar a little. I think the sequencing is odd – I’d have put Live in the Dream later in the album, maybe pulled Down further up. For me, the title track, Daddy’s Home, is the album’s weak spot, and it’s a shame it’s sequenced as Track 3. I think this the one time that the nudge-nudge sexy/existential pain 70s vibe just doesn’t quite work. She’s hiding behind the song and it’s not telling us anything about the real story of her father’s incarceration. It feels a little cheap to use that as a sell. That’s a shame.

But the rest of the album? I’m not seeing a persona. I’m seeing a real human being singing about real human things – disappointment, love, dead-end careers, loneliness, the death of a friend. The things that Annie Clark’s detractors accuse her of – being angular, being difficult, hiding behind a persona – I honestly don’t think that’s true of this album, title track aside. In the end, the songs speak loud and clear. And if you’ll excuse me now, I’m just going to play it again…

6 thoughts on “JUNE AOTM: Daddy’s Home – St Vincent

  1. I love how much you love Annie brother David and I love the write up for this album. I appreciate that we come at the same things from different directions some of the time. Sometimes we come from different directions but end up in the same place and sometimes we come from different directions and ricochet off somewhere else. I think this time it’s the latter not the former. I’m afraid I’m having something of an existential crisis about this one.

    First off, I will admit to not knowing as much about St. Vincent’s music as i thought i did. I know Strange Mercy … but not as much as I thought I did. (And yes David, why open that album with that track!?!) So I came into this one colder than I thought i was coming into it. To David’s point she’s a bona fide indie star, I genuinely thought I knew her better than I do. Secondly, I want to tread carefully as I know what she means to you and to dismiss this album would be lazy and disrespectful.

    ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’ confused the hell out of me when I first heard it. It took me a while to get my head around it … and it’s only 3 minutes long. But I got there. I love it. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t in my top 10 singles / tracks of 2021. It’s outrageous. But when I heard the rest of the album I was left feeling totally cold. The sleaze never got sleazier than the opening track. The borrowed persona never fitted as snuggly and i’ve not believed any of the other tracks in the way that I believe this very early album high point.

    Maybe I don’t ‘get’ St. Vincent … but that I feel lays the blame at my door. Perhaps it just isn’t ‘for me’? The whole ‘art rock’ thing might be the issue? The line between perfection and pretention is pretty thin and I think the line moves for every person based on their own tastes (and mood?). When I am in a bad mood, this album feels massively pretentious. There’s simply something that rubs me up the wrong way about it. When I feel like this I read reviews and watch / listen to / read interviews with the artist but in this instance that hasn’t helped. If anything it’s made it worse.

    I’ve genuinely had to google the definitions of homage, pastiche and parody to try and work out what this actually is and I still can’t decide. The 70s influences, she very specifically references music made in NYC 1972 to 1976, is effectively her Daddy’s record collection remembered from childhood. When an artist sounds like someone else, its usually cause they love that artist, they’ve lived with that music and it’s part of their soul. I am not sure if St. Vincent loves the music that provides the reference material to this album or if it was just what she said it was, ‘her Daddy’s record collection’. I don’t think I hear a reverence for the source, I certainly don’t hear that she’s distilled it and woven it into her being. What I hear is a note perfect, razor sharp repetition of the tropes of the period and specific artists. Perhaps it is this that makes me feel cold. It’s almost robotic in its musical perfection at points. The lyrical content differs. In part, there is more for me to believe and feel here. But the lyrical highs are accompanied by numerous, frustrating lows too.

    At this point. I’ve actually decided to stop listening to the album for a bit. If something is not clicking, it ain’t clicking and forcing it isn’t going to help. I’m taking a few days off and will revisit it with a fresh outlook (or at least I will try). I don’t want to write this off. I know what it’s like bringing an artist that you love to AOTM and I want to give this the space it deserves.

    1. Wow. A might AOTM write up and a might reply, both really beautifully written and from the heart. It is sounding a bit repetitive, but – if I felt the same way as both of you did – may not have much to add here, but a) luckily I fall somewhere in the middle and b) actually bollocks, I ALWAYS have something to say.

      Joey – one point that really leaps out at me on your points around a sort of ‘robotic musical perfection’ is the Bowie and Young Americans. Now, I LOVE this album, so much so I bought it on vinyl recently. It was, of course, his ‘Plastic Soul’ label (his own, in my mind used in trying to preventatively downplay its response in case of being accused of pastiche, or, what we’d probably call cultural appropriation these days). Now I think for that album, you could easily adore it: the melodies, the lyrics, the sax *swoon*, the backing singer (yes, Luther, but so much more) and the next incarnation of Bowie’s shapeshifting. Or you could see it as a cold, unimaginative facsimile of its forebears. And I can see both sides (but I know I’m right).

      So if anything, your two responses show just how this source material, a reputation, the package, the optics, the persona, can all mean the exact same music gets two entirely different reactions.

      But this is why I love the blog and the podcast, because jesus, it’d be boring if we all thought the same.

  2. So, I thought I may as well get in early here too, because I’ve certainly listened to the album enough to have a position so far. So what do I think?

    Well, first, some context. I am absolutely not *a St Vincent person*. This isn’t me saying I don’t like her music, or her artistry, or have any criticism of her in mind, it’s just simply that I don’t have any real thought about her at all (I know, that’s not like me). But she’s someone filed distinctly under ‘artists I should really know more about and probably love, but have passed me by’. I’m thinking of others I could file in the same way, and off the top of my head: D’Angelo, Dylan, (how about that for a segue) and the likes of Van Morrison, and more modern, bands that so many friends love like Fontaines DC, or Drake.

    So…. what’s my preconceptions? No idea. I did listen to an excellent playlist from St Vincent megafan David, and while I really *liked* the music, and clearly appreciated the skill, the melodies, the artifice, and of course, the guitar playing, I didn’t feel like I *loved* anything. This isn’t damming with faint praise either: I really enjoyed what I was listening to, and it’s some palette, too. I listened to 3 full albums more than once before I got to Daddy’s Home too. But when I knew a few listens in that, say, Genesis Owusu had *something* when I waded through this new album, I wasn’t sure what I felt.

    That doesn’t mean nothing landed. it did. Of course Pray Your Way In Pain is an opening sledgehammer, that playful ragtime chord being smashed by those synths and guitars. This – to my mostly uneducated brain – felt like a St Vincent record. But then it really didn’t pan out how I expected. And this isn’t in a bad way, I actually really like the ‘submerged’, almost druggy nature of the music. And with all the comment on the specific era the music – and Clark’s latest guise – was set within, it really did feel that way. I may have no reference point for St Vincent, but Live The Dream was an obvious Pink Floyd nod, and I absolutely LOVED the sitar, scuzzy rock of Down. In fact, it’s still my standout track of the album so far. But I’m still struggling with connecting to the rest of it. Which is odd because it’s all so beautifully done, and so intricately put together. Like David, I’m a bit staggered that Jack Antonoff is the partner on both this and the last album. Perhaps he’s really just a great producer being let loose on an album that doesn’t want to confirm to pop structures?

    There are other highlights. My baby Wants A Baby – Sheena, of course – but this sort of panic-laden confusion of women wanting to have kids when you can’t even manage your own chaos… or Candy Darling’s closing, almost sedated, woozy melodies to the famous Warhol icon. And I think The Melting Of the Sun’s criticism is as ridiculous as the song is brilliant. It’s the most Plastic Soul of the album, and I mean that in the best way possible. I just am not along the road I’d want to be on because, let’s face it, Annie Clark is an incredible musical magician, and knowing what David thinks of her here, and also that I’m the odd man out (again) on the blog, really makes me feel I should be falling in love with this music. But I also feel like I’ve missed the boat somewhat.

    As for the critical reception? Well, I don’t want to give the likes of The Slate and Pitchfork much of more than my undisguised contempt for reviews that seem to want to pick apart an album that they don’t like because it’s not conforming to their idea of what ‘good is’ but with pithy, wafer-thin logic. I fully echo points here that you have to ask if a man would ever be treated like this? Any artist with the obvious talent that St Vincent has should be treated at least even-handedly but it seems that for women in music, the one thing you can always depend on is a man waiting to put them in their perceived place.

    So this is a work in progress. One I hope I end up in a Weather Station style position on, maybe in time for the record, rather than a postscript. But I’ll settle for that over an Yves Tumor or a Joey and Nolan’s Macca III. But isn’t that most of the fun? The journey?

    Ask me in two weeks!

  3. Update: I’m coming all Weather Station on this.

    I’m waiting for that epiphany. But is it going to come? If so, will that be by Monday? Or a week or two later?

    I just don’t know. It’s got all the musical flourishes and inventiveness, a *style*, an intention, but I’m still waiting for the 9:50 express from Feelstown. Must be stuck in a tunnel.

  4. Apologies for the late delay on getting into the conversation, this has been a hard on to approach. To the point that I have written a response to this about four times so far but have struggled to get my thoughts together enough to create a response with any value after reading the great intro to this album from brother David.

    St Vincent firmly sit at the top of the list when I think of artists that many people love but I’ve never fully bought into. Over the last few releases I’ve given them a try and thought I need to come back to this, and never have. Brother David picking this album has been great, as I’ve been committed to this album and St Vincent over all.

    Initially I really struggled with this album. I found it washed over me with very little connection. It wasn’t until I heard my neighbour listening to it in her garden whilst the sun was out that it actually caught me. This for me is a sun drenched album in most parts. ‘Down And Downtown’ feels like a early 2000’s Balearic anthem that you’d hear whilst being seated at KM5 in Ibiza. ‘Melting Of The Sun’, ‘Somebody Like Me’ and ‘Candy Darling’ all remind me of lost summer days.

    I find that this album has two levels for me. The first is background music, that at times passes me by. It doesn’t offend but it doesn’t catch me either. The second is the more complicated as you can imagine. It’s me trying to get into this album but it not fully clicking.

    Brother David touched on a good point which I think is the area I’m struggling with; I’m not sure what persona to believe throughout the tracks. Is it the persona or is it the artist? This album seems to have both and I sort of wish it was one or another.

    Musically this album is fine. But I’m still waiting for it to grip me.

  5. Caroline Hollick

    Hey Pod Guys! I totally loved your St Vincent podcast. I was listening to it while out for a run and found it so absorbing, I kept forgetting I wasn’t in the room with you, and couldn’t chip in. I kept literally drawing breath – cos I gotta lot to say, for sure! I kind of get the criticism of St Vincent being that she’s calculating– she definitely uses her personas as a shield, and she’s so ferociously intelligent that perhaps that could be mistaken for cold intellect. But I feel really strongly that there IS a common thread running through every song in Daddy’s Home, which I think gives this concept album such a strong narrative coherence. So here I am, busting in on your blog like a busybody lady, with my bossy lady opinions…!
    As David said in the blog, I’m probably even more of a fan than her is. I’ll never forget seeing Annie Clark in the Brudenell Social Club in 2011, in a tiny leather miniskirt shredding a guitar like a goddess. She made me question so many of my life choices (Why the fuck did I take up the treble recorder age 12 not the guitar? Why don’t I own a leather mini-skirt? Why am I married with 2 children?) The only other guitarists I’ve ever seen come close are Prince and Lindsay Buckingham. Annie Clark is in unchartered territory and takes up a very complex space which makes her hard to pin down. What other woman could we compare to Bowie, Prince or David Byrne? She’s got a lot of complex male role models to grapple with, who she both embraces and rejects with her stylised, overtly feminine personas.
    So ostensibly, the title states this album is about her dad – but actually, it’s about a particular kind of French feminist thought (stop snoring at the back please!) which looks to disrupt gender norms with language. She’s using her lyrics, her highly feminised personae and her guitar to explore the tension between the power she is afforded as a successful musician (and a woman who had to replace her own father when he left her) with a violent rejection of the patriarchy that gave male musicians and fathers all that phallic power in the first place. Every song on this album I think has a relationship to this tension. And all of this done through the lens of her own father’s record collection – a man-cave mish-mash of male idols – Pink Floyd, Bowie, Lou Reed. If there’s some musical unevenness, or a lack of sense of curation, that’s because she wants to create that sense of pulling records randomly out of their sleeves. Also the joy of feminist critical analysis is that you can claim chaos as feminist disruption.
    I can’t believe all of you agree that Daddy’s Home is a crap song. It’s genius! She promises you a confessional about this tabloid splash, her dad’s incarceration which she’s never before spoken about, and turns it into a lurid appropriation of male sleaze. SHE’S the Daddy! It’s brilliantly disruptive. And this push-pull, between hating the patriarchy, wanting to embody it, and trying to find the space between to be her true self continues through the album. Somebody Like Me is a literal take-down of the ultimate tool of the patriarchy, marriage. Down is a feminist revenge fantasy. At the Holiday Party is an exploration of artistic vulnerability through homage to a literally filthy Mick Jagger song, Can’t Get No Satisfaction. And Jagger would totally have vibed with the emotional ambivalence of My Baby Wants A Baby. ‘ I wanna play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves’ – it’s her fantasy, which she knows she will be judged for.
    Melting of the Sun is about the women who paved the way for St Vincent’s rise, but interesting that alongside musical greats like Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone (who arguably rose above being objectified) she cites Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, tragic, complex women who embodied the sexual hypocrisy of their era. Annie never quite feels she can escape the pressures of her physical female body (which she both loves and wants to transcend). Again it’s all about the tension between two opposites, this space Annie embodies. The Laughing Man is about her most simple relationship with a male, her childhood friend. She can idealise him because he’s dead. Candy Darling is about worshipping the most complex kind of woman, Andy Warhol’s tragic trans muse. The whole album is a massive fuck you to the conventions of sex and gender, and a paradoxical appropriation (and rejection) of male power. And it’s full of banging tunes. I think it could be one of the greatest albums of the last 5 years, and a feminist masterpiece.
    But there’s no excuse for the fucking humming bits. Annie seriously. WTF?

    LOVE YOU ALL, FROM CAZ XXX

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