Meeting David Byrne did something weird to St. Vincent. I don’t think there’s any question of that. I mean, just marvel at that straight-laced, almost depressingly plain photo of her on the cover of her 2009 album Actor — we’re talking about basically the nadir of goodie-goodie chamber nerd with a collection of Chopin CD’s at home. Strange Mercy was the bulbous masterpiece that gave us songs about fear and having “an attack,” only bolstering this image of Annie Clark, whose stage name is St. Vincent, as a sort of sympathy-garnering spinster who will never taste the hedonistic juices of real life.
Well, that phase is over, you might say, upon the subsequent events of her recording a very sexual album with Byrne, talking about masturbation on St. Vincent (2014), showing her a** on the cover of MASSEDUCTION and then dressing like a veritable prostitute on the cover of Daddy’s Home (2021), which I have to admit I thought about boycotting just because I was so weirded out by this person. It becomes overwhelming clear, though, right on the opener of this album “Pay Your Way in Pain,” that St. Vincent is one of the absolute authoritative voices in music today, and that this album is anything but an exercise in kitsch, or a contrived attempt to represent an already extant theme, as it were.
One of the staggering achievements of Daddy’s Home will ultimately be the way Clark in tandem with Taylor Swift, Lorde producer Jack Antonoff, constructs an album with a full, robust mix of mainstream pop, but is subsumed almost entirely in instrumental virtuosity as well as instrumental ecclecticism, with Wurlitzer, sitar guitar, lap steel, Mellotron, clavinet and clavichord just a few of the bevy of instruments listed on this album’s Wikipedia page. The decided aesthetic here is ’70s soul, approximating Sly & the Family Stone’s early stuff circa There’s a Riot Goin’ on, with a couple of key additives: classic pop hooks and sultry, relentless guitar soloing. These guitar solos on songs like “The Melting of the Sun” and “My Baby Wants a Baby,” along with the textural and trippy keyboard solo on “Down,” shed a surreal light on these tunes, physically transforming them from mundane pop songs with verses, choruses and improvisational segments, into an innovative, replenishing experience.
I mention that the “aesthetic” is ’70s soul here (fitting her very Tarrantinoan look on the cover) and this is important because, what with the lack of expansive song structure and vanguard lyrical narrative technique or topic, aesthetics, here, are basically everything. To be honest, St. Vincent has never really been the kind of singer who can push her music over the edge with just her voice itself, like, say, Lorde or maybe even Cat Power. But she can change a guitar string in 30 seconds and she is an absolute master on that axe, sending these tunes into celestial territory thereon with the signficant help of Jack Antonoff. Indeed, Daddy’s Home has a way of playing as Antonoff’s album just as much as it is Clark’s, and maybe therein lies some of the symbolism of the cover: some would perhaps say Clark is whoring herself out to a mainstream producer for fame. But then, this becomes part of the joke, too, because Daddy’s Home is an astoudingly substantial, rhythmic and original musical ride, that, while poking fun of itself in a sense, also does the same at those hapless conceptions of indie rock as a nerdy dude playing an acoustic guitar and delivering misanthropic lyrical themes.