There’s something of a mystery about St. Vincent. The 38-year-old multiple Grammy winner, who began her music career as a member of the Polyphonic Spree, has released six acclaimed albums, won multiple Grammys, and has been compared to David Bowie and Prince. So why isn’t she a superstar?
She can sing, powerfully. She can play the guitar, pyrotechnically. She can write songs, either with a collaborator or alone, a rarity these days. She possesses enough charisma to light up a festival field.
Yet her six albums have cracked the Top 10 only once between them — 2017’s Masseduction, which peaked at No. 10. Maybe she’s too edgy, or she just lacks that one signature tune. Only two of her songs, both from 2014’s St. Vincent, have even charted.
A bit of blame may rest at the feet of the music press, which St. Vincent has tended to clash with historically — from the muckraking tabloids down to invasive freelance journalists. In the run-up to Masseduction, she staged interviews in a kind of pink womb where she played prerecorded answers to questions she deemed boring. In April, she requested an interview be withdrawn from publication, resulting in a debate about the ethics of artist censure. If that episode doesn’t reflect well on Clark, it should be contextualized by the turbo-charged efforts of so many other artists to micromanage their own narratives (Beyoncé, Madonna, et al).
All this could change with Daddy’s Home. St Vincent has lost some of her edge, in a good way. Her sound is warmer, softer, more soulful: the lyrics, while still sharp, now come in a swirl of Wurlitzers.
Her father plays two very different roles. The music draws on his record collection, which seems dominated by early- to mid-’70s sounds. A Spotify playlist Clark made, called “Daddy’s Home Inspiration,” includes Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Lou Reed, Dolly Parton and Pink Floyd.
But he also spent nine years in jail for fraud. The title track addresses this in a mini-memoir, mixing lush funk with vivid snapshots (“I signed autographs in the visitation room”) and nuanced emotions. “Where can you run,” Clark wonders, “when the outlaw’s inside you?”
Apart from three brief interludes, the album delivers one compelling cut after another — a warm, rich, soulful record in which her love for the dirty old New York of the ’70s looms large. “Pay Your Way In Pain” is a synth-driven howl about the cruelties of the human condition. “Somebody Like Me” is a dreamy, country-tinged ballad. There’s even some twisted pop, as Sheena Easton’s hymn to housewifery (“My baby takes the morning train …”) turns into a lesbian love song (“My Baby Wants A Baby”). And Candy Darling, the Warhol heroine hymned by Lou Reed, gets her own love song (“Candy Darling”), scented with “bodega roses.”
Funk and soul replace more familiar recent St Vincent tropes — the edgy synth-rock of Masseduction, the gnarly prog-pop of the self-titled St. Vincent (2014). As ever, the attention to detail in the production is inspired. Jack Antonoff co-produces alongside Clark, throwing in call-and-response interludes, electric sitar, flutes and lap steel. Kenya Hathaway, daughter of soul great Donny Hathaway, is one of the backing vocalists throughout.
Daddy’s Home may lack the more exhilarating, guitar-shredding moments of some of Clark’s earlier work, but it’s possibly her most intriguing, most considered album to date. Seven albums into her career, St Vincent has arguably become a defining artist of her generation.