Daddy’s Home By St. Vincent
Daddy’s Home is the latest album from St. Vincent. At first I wasn’t impressed by this surprisingly retro release from an artist known for making inventive pop music. Here’s why I changed my mind.
St. Vincent is my favourite contemporary pop artist. It’s not even close. There’s no point pretending this is any kind of objective music criticism.
I like pop music to be stylistically bold. St. Vincent is the boldest of the bunch. Sonically and visually. The music, and the music videos, always feel smart, sharp, and well crafted – brilliant lyrics, emotive vocals, rich but uncluttered arrangements, and full-on guitar god antics.
Masseduction was easily my favourite album of 2017. By the time I saw St. Vincent live at Summer Sonic on a sweaty August evening, the songs had all been re-arranged. YouTube videos of the tour made it clear the songs were reworked again and again. Then, in 2018, St. Vincent re-recorded the whole album as an acoustic vocal and prepared piano set, called it MassEducation, and managed to make the songs even more sensual and compelling.
But something more important than amazing musicianship caught my attention. Nothing sounded retro. Nothing looked retro. Everything St. Vincent did felt fresh, new and future-oriented.
It stood in stark contrast to a lot of other pop music from the mid- to late-2010s, which seemed to bask in an odd, back to the roots, misguided sentimentality. The hipster aesthetic had taken over not just our coffee shops but also music libraries. IL1
Then along came St. Vincent’s album, Daddy’s Home.
The Knowing Retro of Daddy’s Home
On Daddy’s Home, there was no pop-futurism. The album dug into the past, the early ʼ70s in particular, for inspiration. The David-Bowie-meets-Tom-Waits vibe felt comfortable, familiar, even nostalgic.
This bugged me.
We are drowning in nostalgia. From the artisanal homesteading nostalgia of hipster culture, full of Edison bulbs and home ferments, to the relentless needle drops in movie trailers, where a few bars of something familiar, like a Guns and Roses track, aims to be enough to lure us to the movie theater.
Of course this nostalgia works. The science of music cognition describes what we already know – that old songs from youth can hold a powerful sway over our emotions.
And given how much digital technology pervades every aspect of life, it’s not surprising so many pine for an age of paper, pen, and pickles.
But perpetually looking backwards is also a way of avoiding looking too closely at our present. Rolling back the clock on culture and music also means rolling back the clock to a time when we had less diversity and inclusion.
To me, nostalgia – especially manufactured nostalgia – is like candy. Fine in small doses. Maybe even fun. But not something you should build your diet around.
So I initially resisted Daddy’s Home and its knowingly nostalgic soundscape.
History Keeps Happening To Us
The Jewish scriptures, or the Old Testament, as Christians call it, is full of stories: the slaves in Egypt, Moses and the Red Sea, the Promised Land. These stories beg the question, “Did it really happen?”
There’s a saying in midrash, the tradition of interpretation, that suggests the important question isn’t “Did it happen?” but “Why does it keep happening?” People keep being enslaved. They still seek salvation. They find a reason to hope they lose their way.
The stories from an ancient past can help make sense of recent history.
During the most restrictive parts of the pandemic, I found myself suddenly, almost alarmingly, nostalgic. Eddie van Halen passed away, and I listened to songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I picked up a guitar and could remember riffs and solos. My voice rose effortlessly to find melodies and harmonies.
Studies suggest that music-evoked nostalgia might even be good for us. It can evoke more than just joy. It can bolster optimism, self-esteem and social connectedness, especially during moments of sadness. This use of nostalgic music to regulate emotion might have been even more important and prevalent during the pandemic.
Listening Afresh To Daddy’s Home
So, I decided to reconsider my stance towards nostalgia, at least for now. I listened to Daddy’s Home with fresh ears. Instead of asking why St. Vincent had dived into the past, I started to ask why the past, the glamorous squalor of the ʼ70s, felt so relevant now.
In so many ways it feels like we’re going backwards now. We’re re-prosecuting ideas we’d settled on a generation ago, ideas from gender and reproductive rights to racial equality, the need to avoid environmental catastrophes and species extinctions, the provision of education, economic justice, and health care for everyone. We’re even facing inflation and global supply issues like we did back in the ʼ70s!
Why does this keep happening?
Suspending my prejudgments about the album loosened my perception of what was going on musically. Instead of a wash of nostalgic timbres, I could hear the space and inflection in each beat. I could feel the way discontent and cultural strife skips across generations like a stone skimming a lake.
If you push past the comfortable embrace of nostalgia, you encounter history. You start to ask questions like why did gospel and soul music become so political? Why was pop art and glam rock so flamboyant and transgressive?
And you start to feel like those questions are just as important today.
Daddy’s Home wasn’t the album I wanted. But in the strange psychological drama we’ve just lived through, it became the album I needed.
When I listen to Daddy’s Home in years to come, I’ll remember this time, the loneliness and uncertainty of it all, and be thankful that this album reminded to dance a little, to look past first impressions and listen to what a great artist was gently whispering in my ear.