Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Clairo’s delicate genius shines through on ‘Sling’

Starting your music career as a YouTube sensation can be a poisoned chalice, and Claire Cottrill, known to the world as Clairo, has managed to put impressive distance between her and the bedroom noodling that first propelled her to fame.

Her debut album, ‘Immunity’, was one of the albums of 2019. On the standout track, ‘Alewife’, Cottrill recalled the time her best friend came to her rescue while she was experiencing suicidal thoughts. It was a no-holds-barred performance, the vulnerability of the vocals and the sparseness of the arrangement combining to devastating effect. However, speaking to Song Exploder in 2019, Cottrill explained that “Especially in music, it made me feel really seen to write a song about that night.”


Listening to ‘Sling’ for the first time, it’s clear that something has changed for Cottrill. The music is more delicate than anything on Immunity, her voice so soft that she practically whispers her way through half of the tracks. At times she can barely be seen at all.


And yet, throughout the album, she comes across as a stronger, more assured presence – at ease with herself and at home in a new musical environment inspired by ‘70s singer-songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill. Programmed beats, synths and vocoders have been replaced by a more organic setup. The bulk of the record revolves around a classic quartet of guitar, drums, bass and piano, complemented by occasional light strings or a smattering of horns.


Cottrill has described ‘Sling’ as “a glimpse into a world where I found that domesticity is what I was missing.” It’s an accurate description of a record that marks an abrupt break from her previous output. Indeed, lead single Blouse is so far removed from Clairo’s inaugural internet hit that it’s hard to believe it’s the same artist.


There’s no attempt to replicate the lo-fi anthems that peppered her debut album, nor is there anything as instantly catchy as ‘Sofia’ or ‘Bags’. Clocking in at a slender 45 minutes, ‘Sling’ is so purposefully understated that any listener failing to commit their full attention risks reaching the end of the record without even noticing it.


But while ‘Sling’ is certainly more demanding than anything Clairo has released to date, it’s an album full of unexpected delights, one that rewards closer inspection and repeat listens.


Whereas ‘Immunity’ sounded best on the move, its propulsive beats perfect for taking on the bustle of city life, ‘Sling’ sounds like it ought to be experienced while sat around a campfire on a summer’s evening, or better still, contemplated from the confines of a log cabin in the middle of the nowhere.


Sling’ is Clairo’s Walden – her own manual for self-reliance. On it, she explores topics such as motherhood (‘Reaper’), sexualisation (‘Blouse’) and her mental health battles (‘Just For Today’) with honesty, wit and wisdom in equal measure. She even joins a short and illustrious list of songwriters to have successfully captured the profundity of dog ownership (‘Joanie’), which, remarkably, she manages to achieve without any lyrics at all.


As a lyricist, Cottrill’s biggest strength has always been her directness, and there is no shortage of zingers on the new album. “I can hope tonight goes differently / But I show up to the party just to leave,” she sings wistfully on ‘Amoeba’. “Since when did taking time take all my life?” is the question posed on ‘Just For Today’.


But it’s the music that has come on leaps and bounds with her latest effort. Whether Cottrill is playing solo acoustic guitar or performing in her ‘70s-inspired ensemble, there is greater depth and richness to her sound. Songs like, ‘Blouse’, ‘Harbor’ and ‘Just For Today’ are utterly gorgeous and showcase a songwriter at the height of her powers.


Elsewhere on ‘Sling’, the beauty lies in the subtlety of the instrumentation. On ‘Zinnias’, it’s the layers of acoustic guitars that build and build before soloing their way through to the song’s conclusion. On ‘Amoeba’, it’s the opening notes – which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Kate Bush record – and the closing guitar, perhaps best described as sounding like George Harrison playing slide guitar in a distant bathroom.


Co-producer Jack Antonoff has developed a reputation as one of music’s great enablers, supporting the likes of Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey on their way to delivering career-defining work such as ‘Folklore’ and ‘NFR. It may be that Antonoff’s biggest talent is his ability to get out of the way. For although ‘Sling’ is produced to perfection, it always feels as though Cottrill is in charge – that it’s her vision being realised.


Inspired by the pursuit of cosy domestic felicity and informed by a canon of popular songwriting recorded a quarter of a century before Clairo was born, ‘Sling’ sits some distance from the musical mainstream. However, such is the strength of Cottrill’s connection to her fans, one hopes that her audience will be willing to embrace this bold new direction. After all, her voice, even when half-whispered, has never sounded more powerful.


Cottrill recently admitted that she doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to balance the demands of her music career alongside her ongoing depression and anxiety. She’s an artist to be treasured – for as long as she’s willing to be in the limelight. And with ‘Sling’, Clairo has made an album truly befitting of her delicate genius.

Tom Kirkham

www.tomkirkham.co.uk @finestworktom

Image: Official Album Artwork



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