Clairo’s ‘Sling’ Is a Vintage Pop Triumph: Album Review

For all the thousands of words typed and thumbed about singer-songwriter Clairo since her 2017 song “Pretty Girl” went viral, it’s astonishing — and just as astonishingly unsurprising — how few of them actually focus on her music. Even when people are writing specifically about her songs and albums — including this remarkable latest one, “Sling” — the focus is usually on her personality, her sexuality, her background, her battles with depression and other non-musical aspects. All of those things find their way into many of her lyrics, but musical advancement makes “Sling” the breakthrough that it is.

While Clairo (Clare Cottrill) turns 23 next month, she’s been releasing songs for nearly a decade — first via YouTube covers and gradually originals, until “Pretty Girl” captured the imagination and algorithms of millions and lofted the then-college freshman to a level of renown that saw her opening for Dua Lipa right after finishing her first year at Syracuse University. Her debut EP, “Diary 001,” is a bedroom-pop classic, with a simplicity that reflects her youth but also a depth of melody that makes it easy to imagine its songs being covered by any number of major-label artists. Her first full album, 2019’s “Immunity,” was co-produced with Vampire Weekend co-founder Rostam Batmanglij and found her songwriting maturing, particularly on “Bags,” “Sofia” and the opening “Alewife,” although many of the songs were essentially bedroom pop with more elaborate and imaginative arrangements.

“Sling,” however, is something else. A collaboration with the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff — whose voluminous recent work with Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Lorde, the Chicks, Pink and his own band Bleachers is enough to make one’s eyes roll at the announcement of yet another project — it finds both on musical terrain that their previous work has barely hinted at, and, surprisingly, one that is decades older than they are: Dreamy, keyboard-laden pop of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with flashes of the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle,” Carole King, Nilsson, Burt Bacharach, Todd Rundgren and even Weyes Blood’s 2019 album “Titanic Rising,” which also evoked that era. In the process, it’s opened a whole new chapter for both of them.

But Clairo has also advanced dramatically as a singer. Where Rostam compensated for her relatively limited range by loading it up with echo, here she and Antonoff have multi-tracked her voice with delicately layered harmonies that, with the exception of two songs featuring Lorde, are sung entirely by her. They’ve played up the baroque touches in other ways, as well: The album is loaded with vintage keyboards — particularly Wurlitzer electric piano — and a string quartet appears on several songs. There are flashes of Phoebe Bridgers throughout, but that’s due more to similarities in their voices than songwriting.

And yes, the lyrics address many of the aforementioned topics: There’s alienation and loneliness (“I show up at the party just to leave”), a gross encounter with a music industry exec (“Why do I tell you how I feel when you’re just looking down the blouse?”), and depression and family (“Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again”). There’s also a college reference in “Zinnias” so specific that it’s an intersection on the Syracuse campus (curiously, where the all-night food truck used to park, and maybe still does). That song also includes the only lyrical mention of the album’s title, envisioning a potential future for herself with a “baby in a sling.”

But we’re not here to unpack all that — “Sling” finds this young artist taking an unexpected but welcome turn into a new style, one that leaves the possibilities of her next chapter wide open.

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