The first 15 seconds of Daddy’s Home, St Vincent’s sixth solo album, introduce the numerous – and furiously fluctuating – modes of Annie Clark. An old-school honky-tonk piano opens the show, underwritten by unsettling gasps for breath. Then the piano disintegrates and a dirty synth takes over. Clark mimics Mariah Carey with an intricate vocal riff, before she leads her cavorting ensemble, big-band-style, into the main body of the track. If, on her previous record Masseduction (2017), St Vincent was a “dominatrix at the mental institution”, on Daddy’s Home she is an out-and-out shape-shifter.
At first, this unpredictability suggests that there is a freedom about this new era of St Vincent. Over the course of a 14-year career, the guitarist and producer Clark, who grew up in Dallas, Texas, has enchanted both indie and pop fans with her scintillating art rock, and has collaborated with Taylor Swift, David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens and Dua Lipa. With each record, she has taken on a new persona: at the time of her debut, she was a down-to-earth Kate Bush devotee; on her breakthrough Strange Mercy (2011), she was a nineties grunger, aggrieved and abrasive. By the time of Masseduction, it was all about control: the guitar riffs were so sharp they could slice you open; at her live shows, for which Clark wore head-to-toe latex and sang and played along to a backing track, you looked upon someone who had forcibly constrained herself in order to feel utmost power.
There is no such singular character on the excellent, fervent Daddy’s Home. With its rollicking Wurlitzer melodies and gospel-inspired backing vocals, the record sounds, for the first time in Clark’s career, like it was an awful lot of fun to make. It’s certainly musically looser. The ultra-confident, jagged beats of “Pay Your Way in Pain” move into the lo-fi wooziness of “Down and Out Downtown”, on which a melancholy lap-steel guitar flirts with a sitar. The sultry “The Melting of the Sun”, an ode to Clark’s heroes Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Nina Simone, is the album’s catchiest song, and the most stirring of her career to date. And between every few tracks lies a “Humming Interlude”, hushed snippets of a phantom song that doesn’t appear elsewhere on the record, as though Clark is teasing us not only with the variations of her persona that she is willing to share, but also with those she isn’t.
But how loose can St Vincent ever really be? The record’s detached escapism was co-produced by Clark and Jack Antonoff, who, following his work with Taylor Swift and Lorde, has shown himself to be a master of conviction in the studio. Meanwhile, a recent ruckus concerning an interview St Vincent allegedly pulled prior to publication because she was “terrified” of it coming out suggests she has not one bit slackened her hold over how she wishes to be perceived.
The supposedly terrifying content of that interview concerned Clark’s father, who was recently released from prison following a nine-year stint for his role in a $43m stock-manipulation scheme. Though she has written music about it now, Clark didn’t make this story public herself; in 2016, during her relationship with the supermodel Cara Delevingne, the Daily Mail dug it up. Taken at face value, then, Clark’s father is the subject of the album title, and the record her attempt to reclaim a narrative the tabloid press took from her. “I signed autographs in the visitation room/Waiting for you the last time, inmate 502,” she sings on the title track, which swings with sleek jazz undertones, and the brazen guitar of 1970s Steely Dan.
But – and trust St Vincent to twist this one into a tight knot – she comes to own that “daddy” title herself, too. Even in a song about her dad, she is the centre of attention: after all, it’s she who her father’s fellow inmates are interested in. The song is far too vaudeville-like to be purely an ode to his return to society: “We’re all born innocent but some good saints get screwed/Where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you,” she sings, her vocal delivery breathy, each syllable overly punctuated. Here Clark is back in the power seat; near pitiful, and then suddenly domineering, as she masterfully toes the line between virtue and salacity, veering almost to menace when the bass really picks up.
It’s a balancing act she secures under her other guises too. On “Down”, a funked-up, threat-filled song that acts as a revenge fantasy, she sings of a past lover who has wronged her, and maps out how she’ll get them back. There’s grit in her throat in the opening lines: “You hit me one time/Imagine my surprise/When you hit me two times/You got yourself a fight.” But in the chorus, where Clark makes her threat – the clean, vague “I’ll take you down” – she sounds vulnerable, her voice near cracking under the pressure. Her vocals are even more exposed on “…At the Holiday Party”, a beautiful, loving track on which Clark reminisces about someone who has taken to substance abuse in order to bury themselves. “You can’t hide from me,” Clark calls again and again, as horns play out beneath her. And who, you wonder, as Clark performs these many facets of herself, is she hiding from?
“Daddy’s Home” is released on Loma Vista on 14 May