Given the ubiquity of 1980s sounds and aesthetic in modern pop music (recently taken past the point of tedium by Miley Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts and The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’), it was only a matter of time before someone asked, “Why is no-one tapping the vast well of the 1970s”? Annie Clark is well placed to be the one to try, and the resulting album, Daddy’s Home (released this week), shows both the potency and the limits of a would-be ’70s revival.
Clark’s body of work under the name St Vincent has marked her out as a songwriter, musician, and producer of sophistication, and her last album, 2017’s Masseduction, proved that synth can still sound urgent and powerful in the right hands. For Daddy’s Home, Clark teams up again with collaborator Jack Antonoff, (and what a year he’s had, writing and producing albums with Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift – the latter winning him a Grammy) who shares credits for production and instruments, and co-wrote five tracks.
In a video for Rolling Stone, Clark lists as influences for the album everything from the jazz-pop fusion of Steely Dan, to the prog rock of Yes, to the funk and soul of Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone. (Based on the album, she could have added Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, but why be obvious?) Listening back to her earlier records, these influences are all there, and are part of what elevates St Vincent above your average keyboard-and-drum machine chancers.
On Daddy’s Home these influences are explicit, and provide a rich and human sound that never slips into cliché. (I dread to think what a hash Mark Ronson – the hack behind the self-consciously ‘retro’ sounds of Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars – would have made of a ’70s production.)
The 1970s palette also appears to have had a lubricating affect on Clark’s songwriting and singing, releasing a warmth and vulnerability it’s hard to achieve when working with those cold synths. I don’t think a song like ‘The Melting of the Sun’ would be as moving without its earthy soundscape. That said, as ever, it’s the songwriting that really counts. In the same track Clark sings:
Brave Tori told her story
Police said they couldn’t catch the man
Proud Nina got subpoenaed
Singing “Mississippi good goddamn”
As I suspected (and as the song’s music video confirms), the first part is a reference to Tori Amos’s song Me and a Gun (1992), in which she describes being raped at gunpoint, while the next lines invoke Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem. This (sadly still topical) subject-matter neatly mirrors Clark’s use of the sounds of the past to say something original - a bit of ‘Plus ça change…’ that is at once pathetic (in the Greek sense of evoking pathos) and full of hope. This hybrid feeling could be said to be the emotional tone of the album.
Another stand-out track, ‘My Baby Wants a Baby’, manages to be witty and ironic while having the potential to move the listener to tears, all while sticking to a simple 1950s ballad structure. The partner wants a baby. The singer isn’t sure, and laments: “But I want to play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves / Only dress up if I get paid / How can it be wrong?” Works for me. (And doesn’t the melody jump off the page?) But then try this:
What in the world (what in the world) would my baby say?
“I got your eyes and your mistakes”
(At this point your humble reviewer had to take a leave of absence, citing emotional distress.) With songs this good, you don’t want the production getting in the way. There are times on Daddy’s Home when the gloop glop of the wurlitzer, the nervous shuffle of the drums, and the intergalactic guitars can clutter the frame, and leave you wanting the precision of St Vincent’s earlier arrangements. It’s a short flare-trousered step from playful and ingratiating to borderline annoying, and listening to Daddy’s Home you are sometimes reminded why punk needed to happen.
That said, on the whole the production serves the songs. ‘Down’ – which borrows a hook from Nirvana’s ‘You Know You’re Right’ – grooves as hard as anything on Masseducation, and makes good use of the 70s toolbox, as does the funky and deranged album opener, ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’. Beyond the 1970s style, Daddy’s Home sounds fresh, timely, and vital – a modern girl in vintage clothes. But there are moments (perhaps during ‘…At the Holiday Party’) where the listener feels they are hearing something special, and might catch themselves sighing, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore…”