Clairo continues to trod the same thematic territory, but Sling gets an aesthetic upgrade that hints at something more up her sleeve.
When the world was first introduced to Clairo, talk most immediately fell to whether or not she was an industry plant, the then 19-year-old songwriter/producer swiftly rising to prominence off lo-fi pop single “Pretty Girl” in 2017 and its accompanying, cutesy, faux-candid video. The video’s well-timed riff on e-girl aesthetics, combined with knowledge of the musician’s parentage (her dad is a pretty elite marketing exec) made it easy for many to assume the most cynical (and probably correct) stance on the suddenly ubiquitous Clairo. Four years on, this nonscandal has mostly evaporated thanks to loyal stans and high-profile cosigns, most notably from Rostam Batmanglij who co-produced her first full-length album Immunity in 2019. This officially cemented Clairo as someone who was OK for big music press to consider (she played Pitchfork Music Festival that same year), but Immunity wasn’t a particularly exciting debut album, essentially redressing the sound teased on “Pretty Girl” with some expensive contemporary production flourishes and Rostam guitar solos (Danielle Haim showed up to play drums on a few tracks as well to further shore up clout).
Nevertheless, Immunity was generally nicely received, and Clairo’s pull amongst young TikTok and YouTube users has persisted, so here she is now with a new Jack Antonoff-produced album (inevitably) entitled Sling. Unsavory as he is, it’s hard to deny Antonoff’s savvy as a producer of female vocalists, recent St. Vincent project Daddy’s Home representing the sole dud in a multi-year hot streak that has found him assembling excellent records for Lana, Lorde, and so on. Sling is a pretty good Antonoff production, certainly not a cringey goof-up like Daddy, yet not quite an artist-defining work like Melodrama or Norman Fucking Rockwell. Clearly a more inspiring collaborator than Rostam, who mostly sidled up alongside Clairo’s existing sonic preferences, Antonoff has actively pushed and inspired her languid, bedroom pop proclivities toward a robust, warmer sound that maintains the disenchanted tone of the music that’s come before. Making use of a stock of instruments similar to those used on Daddy’s Home (Wurlitzer piano, woodwind horns, analog synths), though with different genre and aesthetic aim, Sling recasts Clairo as something in between cosmopolitan lounge singer and woodsy folk act, placing her hushed, over-enunciated vocals alongside each other in multi-part harmony over acoustic strumming and clarinet. Clairo and Antonoff paint a chilly, late-autumn scene (the time of year at which it was recorded in fact) informed by the latter’s cool keys, occasionally pulled into the warmth of jazzy drum rhythms and bass lines. As a lyricist, Clairo continues to work toward a more refined poeticism, with the writing on Sling representing her strongest offering yet, a good balance of evocative phrasing and direct casual comment.
But despite the new aesthetic upgrade, Clairo is still covering about the same thematic territory that she trod through on Immunity, entangling the existential with mundane conflict. Now 23 and four years into a thriving music career, the songs on Sling introduce a very slightly matured Clairo now contending with the usual industry woes (opener “Bambi”), as well as thoughts of not-so-far off parenthood (“Zinnias,” containing the lyric from which the album derives its name: “Let the real estate show itself to me / I could wake up with a baby in a sling”). Apparently inspired by her dog Joanie (for whom a 5-minute instrumental is named, a credible flex of musicianship) whose vulnerability has inspired Clairo to reevaluate the merits of a quiet, domestic life (a narrative that’s been obsessively reiterated throughout the album’s press cycle), these new considerations don’t really overcomplicate the project at hand, which still makes room to touch on youthful disaffection (bossanova-y second single “Amoeba”) and glamorously inert relationship drama (lead single “Blouse”), pulling them together into something cohesive, if not a little rote by the time things wind down at the 44-minute mark. Seemingly a very conscious step toward maturity, Sling ends up successful in this regard, but maybe too much so, some of these compositions teetering on the edge of self-seriousness; music that could fit right into a Woody Allen movie. Nevertheless, that’s more interesting than what appeared on Immunity or throughout Clairo’s singles work, and Sling also gives her room to wield the full breadth of her vocal range to a degree previously unexpected and unexperienced. Not everything has quite lined up yet, but Sling at least confirms Clairo to be working toward something grander and more ornate.
Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2021 | Part 4.