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Persona Battles Personal on St. Vincent’s ‘Daddy’s Home’

On May 18, 2021

Photo by Zackery Michael

Thanks to PornHub, XVideos, Nabokov and countless pop culture moments, no one really calls their dad “daddy” anymore. It seems kind of pervy. It’s the kind of thing one might say to a partner in bed while their wrists are tied to a post, not something you’d write on a Father’s Day card. When Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, unveiled her latest record, Daddy’s Home, it was only natural to assume she was talking about daddies in the kinky context. Her 2017 record, Masseduction, was full of sly and sexy reimaginations of ordinary things and people. There were plenty of nurses in latex mini dresses, nuns smoking Marlboro Reds, and teachers using rulers not for their intended purpose. Daddy’s Home is different from Masseduction. Like anything Clark’s released in her decade-spanning career, this is a sexy record, and a sardonic one. But it’s also an homage to her actual father, who went to prison for financial crimes. It attempts to be her most personal piece of music yet.

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Clark has been teetering on the edge of mainstream success for a while now, and Daddy’s Home finds her at an interesting moment in her career. She’s too weird to ever be actually famous, but celebrated enough for her record to chart on Billboard, write a song for Taylor Swift and perform at the Grammys with Dua Lipa. Clark is in a position in her career similar to, say, Josh Tillman (better known as Father John Misty) or Ezra Koenig. She’s hovering around the music industry’s upper crust, making it a weirder and more beautiful place with her art rock sensibility and penchant for tasteful absurdity. So where does that leave her own songwriting? Who is Annie Clark on Daddy’s Home?

Like every St. Vincent record, Clark is playing the role of a character here. She’s never 100% herself on her records, she’s an avatar. On Masseduction, she was a kinky, heartbroken dominatrix wearing plastic dresses and arpeggiating her guitar into oblivion. On her self-titled 2014 record, she was an alien high priestess with periwinkle frizzy hair who favored tightly wound, perfectly modulated vocals and choppy guitars. Her earliest records found her as a cheerleader, as an actor out of work, as a sexually frustrated woman on the edge. On Daddy’s Home, she’s wearing a blonde wig and dressed like a character in an Elmore Leonard novel smuggling drugs off of an international flight with a silk kerchief tied around her chin. She’s very Network to the tune of Steely Dan’s Aja. The record is a continuation of the kind of character studies she’s been doing for over a decade. But it works less successfully here. On a record as personal as this one, you kind of wish she'd take a step forward from the gauze she shrouds herself beneath, that she’d tell her story that wasn’t so intrinsically tied to a persona — you know, take off the wig.

Daddy’s Home is an excellently produced and arranged record. Featuring co-producer credits from Jack Antonoff, the record is full of references to the ’70s. In her photo essay for VMP, she shares that she’s seen Steely Dan upwards of eight times, and that while making her record, she spent a lot of time listening to old albums by Sly & the Family Stone and Yes. Put on a song like “The Melting of the Sun,” and you’ll hear the ’70s instantly. Guitars sizzle like a row of cars baking out in the hot sun in July, and backing vocals have a sort of sexually charged Gospel energy à la Bowie’s Young Americans. Here, Clark captures the energy of the ’70s in a pristine way. It feels like a trip to the past. But this walk into the past feels weirdly hollow, like you’ve walked onto the set of a movie and everything is made out of flimsy plywood. She’s not really saying anything here; it feels like a reference dump.

This is sort of an ongoing problem throughout the record. Daddy’s Home is full of gorgeously arranged songs that are missing the kind of crucial infrastructure needed for Clark to tell her story. The frenetic and chrome-coated “Down” has guitars that sound plucked off of Strange Mercy and fat, warm bass runs. It also features some characteristically goofy lyrics. “Go get your own shit / Get off of my tit / Go face your demons,” snarls Clark, singing as if she pulled her words out of a “cool rock ’n’ roll phrase” generator. “Pay Your Way in Pain” is full of glistening, moving parts, but feels a bit unmoored. If Clark is trying to say something about her story here, it’s a bit washed out and hard to make sense of.

There are songs that tell Clark’s story in a more meaningful way — that are perhaps equally indebted to the sounds of the past, but also dig deeper into autobiography. The longest song on the record, “Live in the Dream,” is decadent and languorous and is about protecting someone. “Somebody Like Me” is a standout on the record. Field recordings of children playing outside softly filter in like sun seeping through a stained glass window, and Clark’s voice is searching and gentle. She sings about getting married, about her future, about violin strings. She sounds completely at peace, like she’s telling you a story that you need to hear. This is where Clark thrives, when she says exactly what she means and inches toward being completely honest with her listener. In a word, she thrives when she doesn’t tango with the past. She thrives when she’s present, when she calls her daddy by his name.

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Sophie Kemp

Sophie Frances Kemp is a Brooklyn-based writer, originally from Schenectady, New York. Her work has previously appeared in American Vogue, Pitchfork, GARAGE and NPR.

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