On her second album, reluctant Gen Z ambassador Clairo turns back the clock, embracing classic touchstones of 1970s folk.
“Pardon my emotions,” Clairo apologized on her 2019 debut Immunity, suppressing a pounding desire to shut off the TV and just kiss already, worried that her friend would be terribly inconvenienced by the news of her crush. The 22-year-old artist’s world was one of discretion and uncertainty, small utterances and their shadow meanings, shy nudges toward people you want so badly to touch. (As she once told Rookie, “Getting close to someone is a really sensitive thing.”) But on “Blouse,” the hushed lead single of Clairo’s second album, Sling, the little thrills of adolescence are gone. “Why do I tell you how I feel/When you’re just looking down the blouse?” she sings, the dewy sincerity she once radiated now hardened into bitterness. Here is another young woman whose trust has been abused by an older man, and who is so hungry to be validated that she’ll risk being sexualized again: “If touch could make them hear, then touch me now.”
It is brutal to realize, when you’re young, that the ogling curiosity with which older people regard you is not the same as respect, and getting attention does not mean having real agency. Since she stumbled into fame in 2017, and not entirely of her own volition, Clairo has been narrowly interpreted through the prism of her generation—keywords: viral, YouTube, bedroom pop, POLLEN, bisexuality—as an avatar for sensitive youths more comfortable online than outside, and who speak frankly about their feelings. On Sling, you sense her exhaustion with this framing: “‘She’s only 22,’” she quotes anonymous commentators on closer “Management,” a song about feeling depleted by her career. And so, shrugging off the pressure to embody the future, she instead turns back the clock, embracing the touchstones of the past. Sling is her ’70s singer-songwriter album, the work of an old soul raised on Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and the Carpenters. “Mitchell told me I should be just fine,” she foreshadowed on the last record; now she’s stepping up to the mantle.
If it took Taylor Swift until her eighth album to retreat to the woods and return with a muted, elegant folk collection, then Clairo is far ahead of the curve. Recorded in the mountains of upstate New York with Jack Antonoff, Sling features vocal harmonies that sound like gleaming sighs, bluesy electric guitar whines, and plenty of minor key piano. Nothing really resembles a “hit”; the only single, the aforementioned “Blouse,” sounds like Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes” tucked away in a sleepy winter cabin. In place of the heady ambiguities of young love are themes that Clairo once believed were “too emotional or intense to unravel”: “Motherhood, sexualization, mental health, and a lot of my own mistakes and regrets,” as she wrote in a recent newsletter. You can read the album, like many artists’ second projects, as an attempt to prove seriousness and maturation, to illustrate depth beyond what initially made her famous. For Clairo, Sling was a necessity: “This record has changed everything for me, because I was fully going to quit music,” she told Rolling Stone.
Her songs are wordier than ever before, etched with proper nouns and specificities—her friend Claud, the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, the Syracuse intersection of Comstock and Waverly. The granular and incisive lyrics are further proof of her songwriting talent, but they can also be harder to penetrate. (From “Zinnias”: “Got a cold piece of information to bring to you, said ‘Sorry but I can’t stay here while we wait for June.’”) Clairo has always been an insular artist, attuned to the nuances of private thought. But her prior songs were low-voiced conversations with other people, or at least her imagination of them—“Sofia, know that you and I/Shouldn’t feel like a crime,” she sang—and their simplicity afforded them a kind of openness. Here, Clairo is often alone, picking at knottier and more specific anxieties. “I blocked out the month of February for support/At least I have this year I won’t be worrying anyone on tour/…I throw my drink into the faces of my demise,” she sings on the pastoral, lullaby-like “Just for Today.” By her own admittance, all but Sling’s single needs “constant context”; she seems content for some of this knowledge to be hers alone.
There are real risks here: that the music is so understated and tasteful it becomes a snooze, that in wisening up you lose the gleam in your eyes. The quietness and occasional opaqueness of Sling remind me of a recurring complaint about Clairo’s stage presence, that she’s too withdrawn and timid to reach her audience. “If she says anything meaningful between songs, only the first few rows can hear it,” said one Guardian review. The singing on Sling does little to dispel this image. In its weaker moments Clairo assumes a hoarse, feeble whisper or mumbles like she’s under the covers late at night—although her vocals can also be exceptionally pretty, swelling into pearlescent “oohs” and golden harmonies. Sling is, in many ways, a curiously timed record, one that aspires toward domesticity, temperateness, and slow living at a moment when many people are craving unruliness and spontaneity. “Rushing so I can beat the line,” she cries out on “Bambi,” in one of the album’s most poetic lines. “But what if all I want is conversation and time?”
There’s a lesson in Sling’s irregular structures, about how if the present doesn’t move you, you can wait a few moments for something new to arrive. Sometimes a song proceeds slowly, and then a breeze wafts in and hitches up the tempo, until it feels like sashaying down the street in tap shoes. In the midst of “Bambi” is a sauntering horn section so waltzing and pleasant that you feel like a stranger might appear to gallantly tip his hat to you. It is an album of gradual beauty, each successive listen revealing new ripples and hues. One of Sling’s most vibrant, glorious moments occurs on “Wade,” not too long after Clairo murmurs that decades of her life are wasting away. The song slows, as if to alleviate her worry: woodwinds flutter like bluebirds, everything swoons in relief. Sling may be an album concerned with time, fears of obsolescence instilled by a vampiric music industry. But it also finds exuberance in stillness, a kind of gentle unburdening.
Buy: Rough Trade