In Defence of St. Vincent, Who Shouldn’t Need Defending

It’s no coincidence that St. Vincent’s most controversial album is also her best.

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Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.

Not long ago, St. Vincent seemed to be one of the most universally well-liked acts in all of alternative and indie music. Over the last half-decade, that perception has begun to unravel.

With 2017’s Masseduction, she traded her longtime producer John Congleton for Jack Antonoff; her already-flamboyant tour outfits for latex catsuits; and her sophisticated melodies inched ever closer into becoming actual pop hooks. At the same time, Annie Clark herself was becoming more of a public figure — a tabloid fixture who was dating Cara Delevingne; playing the Grammys alongside Dua Lipa. The more she moved outside her once-tightly defined aesthetic circle, the more she stood to gain.

To many of her loyal fans — and some skeptical onlookers — this all played out like a gradual, unintentional heel turn. In 2019, St. Vincent produced Sleater-Kinney’s album The Center Won’t Hold, whose creative shift (widely considered a noble failure, if not an outright flop) led to the departure of their beloved drummer Janet Weiss.

When St. Vincent announced her sixth studio album, Daddy’s Home, it came with a curious angle: the songs were inspired by her father’s emergence from prison after serving 10 years for stock manipulation. Initial reactions were mixed — was she not ashamed of her father’s actions? It raised more questions than answers.

Paired with the kerfuffle of a pulled interview last month, there were reasons to be trepidatious. Had the real-life Annie Clark finally lost all self-awareness, and become the protagonist of a St. Vincent song?

Deeper and Deeper

As with everything she’s ever done, there’s more to Daddy’s Home beneath the surface. The album opens with a comically jaunty piano intro, before descending into the sleazy, ’70s-styled glam rock of ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’. In the verses, St. Vincent sings about walking into ordinary situations and finding her world turned upside-down: “I went back home, I was feelin’ kinda queasy/But all the locks were changed, my baby wouldn’t see me”. But in the choruses, she narrates her own demise: “You got to pay your way in pain/You got to pray your way in shame!”

Where Masseduction explored the thrilling, overwhelming feeling of modern life, Daddy’s Home looks to the past for answers. Clark’s signature guitar tone — that clean, robotic fuzz that twists and weaves around her voice — is nowhere to be found. Instead, she and co-producer Jack Antonoff have built an aesthetic that’s warm, gentle, and overtly nostalgic, with not a note out of place — and that includes even the songs’ occasional, brief bursts of chaos.

That sound’s never cheaply deployed, though; she forces herself to earn each moment of beauty. ‘Somebody Like Me’ flutters with the romance of Édith Piaf, but is about love as “a mutually agreed-upon delusion”. A wedding song, perhaps, for those with a dark sense of humour.

Where Masseduction explored the thrilling, overwhelming feeling of modern life, Daddy’s Home looks to the past for answers.

On ‘Down and Out Downtown’, St. Vincent indulges herself completely. Her voice soars, reaching for transcendence, then inevitably comes back down to earth: “Hey, I was flyin’/Over the Empire State/Then you kissed me/And I crashed again…”.

In the title track, Clark ruminates on her father’s return over odd jazz chords and wheezing saxophones. With few words, she paints a portrait of their tangled relationship; her rise to fame, alongside his incarceration. She knows he’s paying for his crimes, but rather than feeling sorrow or relief, it’s all just absurd: “If life’s a joke, then I’m dying laughing”.

On the album’s two most optimistic songs, Clark acknowledges her artistic idols. ‘The Melting of the Sun’ is a tribute to her female forebearers, whose lyrics acknowledge Jayne Mansfield, Joni Mitchell, Marilyn Monroe, Tori Amos, Nina Simone. Clark romanticises their lives and their music, but with the knowledge that they suffered for their outspokenness; that they must have struggled with as many mundane, frustrating moments as she has in her life.

She closes the album with a simple tribute to ‘Candy Darling’, the iconic transgender actress who was best known as the muse of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Darling died young, and forever defined by her image, she was rarely seen as being able to speak for herself. St. Vincent’s song can’t tell us anything we don’t already know; it can only offer gratitude for her brief life and legacy. Like Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it makes a ghost corporeal, if only for a moment.

The End Of Nostalgia

Daddy’s Home is the rare nostalgic work of art that acknowledges its limitations. St. Vincent goes back in time to the decade before she was born, and a style of music that she’d never before had the courage to attempt. She tries it on, along with her blonde wig and vintage outfits, and it fits beautifully — but none of that means she can live in the past.

On ‘My Baby Wants a Baby’, Clark looks instead to the future. Everyone expects her, a woman of a certain age, to want a child — but she finds herself utterly baffled. Some will call it selfish, but she doesn’t want to live for anyone but herself, or speak through anything but her art: “I wanna play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves/Only dress up if I get paid/How can it be wrong?”

Artists strive to create music that reflects, even improves, upon real life — each album a diorama of the inside of their mind. But outside themselves, there’s no such perfect world. There never was — not for the artists she loves, and perhaps not even within Annie Clark’s own music. Even the “classic” St. Vincent sound can’t stay forever, lest she become trapped in her own prison of diminishing returns.

So Annie Clark lets go of her attachments, and puts her faith in her flawed, human self. On the most psychedelic, drifting song of her career, she reconnects with her life’s mission: “I can’t live in the dream/The dream lives in me…”

Daddy’s Home feels alternately cynical, optimistic, and neither. She’s unveiled a new-old persona, but there are no grand moments of revelation — only a long path to self-acceptance. We can’t relive the past, but we understand how it shapes who we are now, and who we wish to be tomorrow.

More than anything, Daddy’s Home is comforting. It’s the comfort not of temporary relief, but of truly knowing yourself. At least for this writer, it’s the best St. Vincent album to date.

Who Is St. Vincent, Really?

If you’ve kept up with the external narrative and hype around Daddy’s Home, you might come away with the exact opposite impression of the album. Many of the reviews are tentatively positive; unwilling to write off St. Vincent as an artist, but critical of the album’s fundamental premise. NPR implies that she uncritically buys into her own nostalgia; Pitchfork refers to its concept a “mask”; Stereogum says, “it mostly feels listless and lost within its own distant universe”. Setting aside their subjective responses to the music — why does St. Vincent push people’s buttons like few other modern artists?

For years, there was a deliberate tension within St. Vincent’s music. Her songs were melodic and accessible, yet her persona was deliberately arch — her lyrics often spoke in veiled metaphors and riddles. But ever since Masseduction’s lead single ‘New York’, her songs have quietly unfurled — they’re now openly emotional, even vulnerable.

As she’s moved into the pop-celebrity realm, it’s come with a certain expectation of autobiography. As with literally every female artist in the public eye, many assume that her songs must confess something about her private emotional life, as if she’s her friend and ‘Cruel Summer’ collaborator Taylor Swift.

But St. Vincent’s music has never existed within that celebrity-gossip context — not even on Daddy’s Home, which is clearly somewhat inspired by life events, but never invites the listener to take its lyrics literally.

Of course, her art has always been deeply personal in its own way. It’s just that Clark’s never shown any interest in being “relatable”, even as her songs have opened up. The way she protects her privacy is part of what makes her such a great rockstar. She’s never lost her mystique.

But in the social media era, that’s created a void that some desperately want to fill. By not overtly condemning her father’s actions (who didn’t raise her), or denouncing her class privilege, she seems to have inadvertently invited others to judge him — and her response — instead. Whatever Daddy’s Home is, it’s hardly an attempt to rehabilitate his image, or her relationship to it.

The Life of An Artist

There’s a certain distance between St. Vincent’s music, public persona, and who we perceive Annie Clark to be in her private life. At least since Masseduction, this has been the central tension between her and her social media presence. Although some of her comments and shared quotes on “cancel culture” have been clumsier than others, she’s right about one thing: the internet has made us more prone to snap judgements.

Whether you’re making or experiencing art, the process requires patience. Of course, no one is required to engage with anyone’s music… but like her or not, St. Vincent is an album artist. If art is about empathy, then it requires some letting go of our assumptions about the people making it; to not judge the frame before you take in the details of the whole painting.

St. Vincent is a popstar, in the sense that she holds up a mirror to society. She embodies many of our cultural assumptions and insecurities: the artist class and privilege, indie artists “selling out”, women over the age of 35 doing anything at all. Instead of just reacting, playing into those hot-take thinkpiece games, she responds like the conceptual artist she is, like Prince, Kendrick Lamar, Lana Del Rey would — through her music.

Annie Clark seems to push boundaries without ever really trying to court controversy — she simply is who she is. She refuses to admit otherwise, that it’s all some kind of calculated performance — because it’s not. Art is life is art. Start there, and the whole truth of Daddy’s Home will begin to unravel.

Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.