In March, I was revisiting some old St. Vincent tracks on Spotify when I stumbled on her “Daddy’s Home Inspiration” playlist, a precursor to the album that comes out today. Soon after, she began to tease the ‘70s aesthetic that characterizes the album, but I was only half paying attention to her Instagram, still captivated by these digital liner notes which include tracks by Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and Dolly Parton.
I’ve long thought that books and essays should be released with soundtracks and I have taken to creating playlists for the longer pieces I write. A record preceded by a playlist is like a soundtrack to a soundtrack, and why not? That’s just one of the ways that technology has opened up new storytelling possibilities.
Unfortunately, the Daddy’s Home album doesn’t live up to that storytelling promise. I took the crossed legs and tyrannical stare of the album cover to mean daddy in the kinky sense, the erotic gap between what you want and what you can have. Instead, the album is more like your dad: a disappointment.1
The D word that actually dominates the album is not daddy, but down.
“It’s a long way back downtown,” from “Down and Out Downtown”
“I look down and out in my fine Italian shoes,” from “Daddy’s Home”
“I’ll take you down,” from “Down”
On Daddy’s Home, down is a command without a commander. It’s submission, but to your own boring desires. To get married (“Somebody Like Me”) or have a baby (“My Baby Wants A Baby”) or to record three humming interludes that nobody asked for (“Humming Interlude 1,” “Humming Interlude 2,” “Humming Interlude 3.”) The problem isn’t that this album never moves above 14th Street, its that it never pulls its fist out of its own ass.
Take these lyrics from “The Laughing Man” for example: “Grass stains and chicken dinners / menthol mouths and secret stitches / half pipes and PlayStation / Suicidal ideation.” The lines read like the singer learned about suburban girlhood from reading John Updike’s A&P. It’s a far cry from the evocative simplicity of Taylor Swift’s “Sweet tea in the summer / Cross your heart, won't tell no other.” Why should something as personal as childhood be reported with such alien specificity? (Lana Del Rey does the same but gets away with it through consistency, by never lifting the veil on her chosen avatar of womanhood.)
St. Vincent is a character surrounding herself with characters, and there are moments where this storytelling does feel genuinely transcendent. The song “Live In The Dream” begins with a Greek chorus talking to someone who has passed out or OD’d or fallen. “Don’t get up, can you count to ten?” It’s slow and trippy before swelling into the chorus, “I can’t live in the dream / The dream lives in me.” It’s a song I can imagine myself revisiting again and again, much like the Reddit story it reminds me of, which is known by Redditors as simply the lamp story: A man gets in an accident, has a decade’s worth of experiences while passed out (including meeting a wife and having two children) and wakes up after fixating on a red lamp whose “wrongness” somehow triggers the knowledge that the last ten years of his life were not reality. The Redditor wakes up surrounded by concerned people and spends the next few years grieving the life he lived in the dream.
This Reddit story, like the song, hints at the opium den of your own mind. I wish the rest of the album was as free. Instead, in the words of Spencer Kornhaber, “With repeated listens to Daddy’s Home, a familiar hollowness sets in. The album imitates stoner kookiness but never gets extreme enough to feel all that trippy.” Ryan Leas calls it “a shaggy, unfocused arc.”
Near the end of this arc enters Candy Darling, a character for the purposes of the album, but also a real person who I have seen resurrected recently to mixed results. Kate Zambreno compares Hervé Guibert’s documentation of Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS (Guibert was also dying from AIDS) to Peter Hujar’s portrait of Candy Darling in her hospital bed (at her invitation), dying of lymphoma. Unlike Guibert, Hujar’s gaze was invited.
And then Olivia Laing writes about David Wojnarowicz writing about Peter Hujar’s death in a series of sterile little artist biographies. Her gaze elicits mixed reactions.
St. Vincent sings, “So Candy Darling I brought bodega roses for your feet / and Candy my sweet I hope you’ll be coming home to me.” This is Candy Darling as metaphor, a metonym for Downtown. (Even as the singer alludes to Darling’s birthplace, Queens.)
I don’t have a moral problem with the storytelling on this album, I simply don’t find the characters all that believable. Just like I don’t have a problem with Olivia Laing inhabiting Kathy Acker in her novel Crudo. (In the hierarchy of transgressions, it’s down there with stalking Sophie Calle.)
What I do have a problem with is St. Vincent victimizing herself in the press for making the personal political when, frankly, the album isn’t that personal to begin with. She can do better, and she has.
St. Vincent instructs the listener to pay their way in pain, but if she isn’t willing to bare her own shame then why should we cover her fare?
The Dirt: Sometimes the playlist is better than the album.
I don’t mean YOUR dad specifically.