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St Vincent: Daddy’s Home review – master of reinvention warps the sounds of the 70s

The backstory of Annie Clark’s sixth album as St Vincent already feels well-worn. We live in an age of prurient interest in – and boundless opinion-giving about – celebrities’ personal lives: announcing that the title of Daddy’s Home referred to her father’s release from prison after a 10-year stretch for stock manipulation was bound to have an overshadowing effect.

Only the title track concerns her father’s imprisonment and release, although his presence lurks over the album in more subtle ways. Its sound was apparently inspired by his record collection, which evidently majored in the early 70s. The whole album is liberally dressed with a synthesised sitar sound that cropped up on dozens of the era’s soul singles, from Freda Payne’s Band of Gold to the Stylistics’ You Are Everything. There are dabblings in the fingerpicked acoustic style of the era’s confessional singer-songwriters, the mock-showtune stylings of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman and the electric piano-driven funk of Donny Hathaway or Stevie Wonder. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Pink Floyd’s most successful album can’t fail to notice the influence of its more languid moments on Live in the Dream, which comes complete with the none-more-Floydian lyric, “Welcome child, you’re free of the cage / Trying to seem sane makes you seem so strange”.

But these don’t sound like lovingly crafted homages to the past. They seem more like parodies, of varying degrees of knowing grotesqueness. So Live in the Dream starts off not unlike Pink Floyd’s Us and Them, but gradually becomes more discordant and ramshackle: the squeak of fingers on guitar strings is louder than the actual guitar, the massed backing vocals clash with Clark’s voice and the sound of the track surges in a way that doesn’t sound stirring so much as sickly. The acoustic guitar figure of Somebody Like Me is pushed along a little too urgently by the tempo of the drums – it feels discomfiting, rather than warm and earthy – synthesiser tones wail, strings weave in and out of the mix. And, on the title track, the electric piano and syncopated drums sound gloopy and disconnected – funk you couldn’t possibly dance to – while the song’s theatrical affectations feel wilfully overblown and cartoonish: cooing the track’s title, the backing vocals have an eerie, mocking tone to them.

It’s all hugely impressive and striking, the familiar made subtly unfamiliar, Clark’s famously incendiary guitar playing spinning off at unexpected and occasionally atonal tangents, its effect simultaneously heady and disturbing. The implication seems to be that if Clark has been rifling through her father’s albums, they don’t sound the same to her as they once did: for whatever reason, the contents of his collection have taken on a warped, twisted quality.

The lyrics sound similarly unsettled, about everything from the prospect of parenthood – My Baby Wants a Baby wittily reworks the chorus of 9 to 5, Sheena Easton’s unironic 1980 paean to the pleasures of housewifery, slowing it to an agonised crawl in order to wrestle with the proverbial pram in the hall – to the very business of being St Vincent. For a decade now, Clark has invented a persona to inhabit on each new album: the “near-future cult leader” seated on a throne on the cover of 2014’s St Vincent, a latex-clad “dominatrix at a mental institution” for 2017’s Masseduction. There’s another on the cover of Daddy’s Home, in a blonde wig and stockings, the “benzo beauty queen” mentioned in the lyrics, who exudes such sleazy energy that, on opener Pay Your Way in Pain, parents feel impelled to shield their children from her (“the mothers saw my heels and they said I wasn’t welcome”).

Related: St Vincent: ‘I’d been feral for so long. I was sort of in outer space’

But elsewhere, Clark seems conflicted about the whole business of playing with identity, flipping between songs projecting a character and songs that are clearly personal: not just the title track, but The Laughing Man’s eulogy for a late friend. On The Melting of the Sun, she lists a succession of soul-baring singer-songwriters and some of their most personal work – Tori Amos’s harrowing depiction of her rape, Me and a Gun; Nina Simone’s livid Mississippi Goddam; Joni Mitchell’s self-baiting exploration of musical “authenticity” Furry Sings the Blues – and finds herself wanting in their company: “Who am I trying to be? … I never cried / To tell the truth, I lied”.

Perhaps her confusion is linked to the fact that constructing a persona is what her father seems to have done: “You swore you had paid your dues then put a payday in your uniform,” she sings on the title track. Or perhaps the album’s fixation with the early 70s, a high-water mark era for pop stars gleefully reinventing themselves, cast a troubling shadow over the whole enterprise. David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Elton John are justly revered artists, but they’re also cautionary tales about the dangers of playing with identity: one of the reasons they ended up in deep trouble was an inability to square their real lives with the images they projected. Whatever her reasons, the sound of Clark’s confusion, and its wilfully warped musical backing, is significantly more gripping than the gossip.

This week Alexis listened to

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – MRA
Excavated and reissued at the behest of Four Tet, delirious jazz meets South African township soul, made by refugees from apartheid in 70s London: a delight.