There is something about period pieces that sets the spirit free. Costume dramas are celebrated every year in cinema, but what about in music? Can an album also be a period piece, or is it just a gimmick, a nostalgic attempt to resuscitate a bygone sound?
Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, interrogates this question on her sixth studio album, a carjacked joyride titled “Daddy’s Home.” Dropped May 14, the album was inspired by St. Vincent’s father, released from prison after serving a sentence for white collar crime that spanned the better part of his daughter’s musical career.
“Daddy’s Home” grooves to a fermement of 70s sound. Clark is a spectacularly adept guitarist, but she sets aside the high voltage riffs that electrified listeners on “Strange Mercy” and her self-titled album, “St. Vincent,” for a dash of psychedelia.
The album reverberates with funk and 70s rock influences. Little piano ditties, sitar solos, and gospel vocals give songs such as “Down” and “Pay Your Way in Pain” a retro feel that is both grimy and fresh. A lot “goes down” lyrically, from songs such as “Down” and “Down and Out Downtown” to lines such as “I look down and out in my new Italian shoes” on the song “Daddy’s Home.” This repetition is a not-so-subtle allusion to one of St. Vincent’s album influences — James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City.”
And yet through all the auditory ephemera of the 70s, a genuinely St. Vincent sound emerges from the album. The brass tracks on “…At the Holiday Party” harken back to the muted, puddering horns on her second studio album “Actor.” The strolling breath work that starts and stalls on “Daddy’s Home” echoes the vocals on her self-titled album. The second verse of “The Laughing Man” is filled with details from Clark’s childhood in Texas (“grass stains and chicken dinners … PlayStations, suicidal ideation”), building upon her 2015 nostalgia-twinged single “Teenage Talk.”
The structure and arrangements of the songs are unmistakably a St. Vincent-Jack Antonoff collab, with sophisticated bridges and brilliantly engineered choral outros. However, there are also some curious musical loose ends that struggle to be tied together, such as the three “Humming” interludes.
The interludes form a sort of serialized song, broken into fragments and scattered around the album. The pieces don’t form an entire song even when listened to in succession, but they share a general melodic framework and grainy, voice-from-the-bottom-of-the-wishing-well lyrics.
“Humming – Interlude 1” clocks in at 57 seconds and shares a simple but emotive anecdote about the speaker’s mother humming in the kitchen. “Humming – Interlude 2” is 27 seconds of musical build, the guitar and bass humming not so much with each other as at each other, doing little aside from killing half a minute of time. Then “Humming – Interlude 3” picks up the lyrical thread for another 38 seconds: “You take a high note and I’ll take the chorus / And all my ghosts will keep hauntin’ you.”
And that’s it — the end of the album.
The three interludes don’t offer an arc, but they do create a pleasant symmetry. The melody carries over from one to three, building up to the words “hummin’” and “hauntin’” and then floating away. Each interlude fades out before the listener is able to really get into the song, and yet by the third “Humming” track, the music manages to find peace within itself, a ghost put to rest.
“Daddy’s Home” is an escapist fantasy of sorts. Some may dismiss it as an attempt at musical time travel, but it is not so much the present returning to the past as the 1970s being dragged into the 2020s with runs in its stockings and curlers in its hair.
In the midst of this period drama, St. Vincent feels curiously like herself. For all the wild performances of her past — the flashing lights, the electric-socket haircuts and the pink latex catsuits — here is a past that St. Vincent is able to make her own.