Clairo’s first album, Immunity, introduced a young, new voice to the indie genre that imbues both talent and confidence. It presented a sonically fluid and genre-less sound that had a little something for everyone, appealing to a wide variety of music listeners. Emotionally resonant chords, a balance of traditional and digital instrumentation and clear creativity and individuality shone through. It was unique. Clairo is unique.
Her most recent, sophomore album has us listen while she uses her gifts to explore a new frontier — elevator music, but slower. Sling is Clairo’s homage to ’70s folk, except every track is sad and the tempo drags. As if Taylor Swift wasn’t dropping enough, Clairo decided to give us her very own folklore or evermore. Except this rendition of pop-singer-turned-folk has no sense of real creativity or ingenuity.
Everything on this album has already been done before. Instead of “cardigan,” we have “Blouse,” aptly named as a more common and less interesting article of clothing. The album was created in collaboration with Jack Antonoff, guitarist for the bands fun. and Bleachers and the guy behind hits from Lorde, Troye Sivan and the latest work from — guess who — Taylor Swift.
The first full listen to this record only brought disappointment. Gone were the impressive boundaryless tones of Clairo-on-the-rise. Here, Clairo and Antonoff sound like they’re terrified to make any sort of profound commitment to anything, like they didn’t want to sound too loud, too new or too old. It’s not restraint — it’s a strangling.
It’s as if they decided to make the most milquetoast project of 2021. Everything sounds muted, a wash of vaguely familiar noises. Sling is for people who like beige and sitting down. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of those things, they’re just unexciting and uninteresting. If Clairo really wanted to try this new direction for her music, she should’ve brought the same intentionality and confidence she had on Immunity to take some risks.
But there are some hints of excellence. “Amoeba” shows off a driving piano homophony with cascading guitar melodies, and the clearest, most direct sound on the album. The delicate interplay of acoustic guitars, piano and the tiniest presence of a clavinet create a well-rounded instrumental. On that track, and the entirety of the album, Clairo’s distinct vocals shine.
In many places, the vocals are the only saving grace. Her multilayered and stacked melodies form a soothing rain shower of sound that allow her truly authentic and intimate lyrics to excel. On “Blouse,” though I do find its title derivative, Clairo expresses her frustration about men in her profession sexualizing her. She poetically lets go of a restless companion on “Partridge,” a track built in a classic rock fashion, with traces of folk and jazz. She frankly discusses her battles with anxiety and depression on “Just For Today,” supported by an acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. “Joanie,” an instrumental track, is the most faithful to her folk-rock inspirations, though the piano melody comes off cute and immature, like some piece of a Disney cartoon soundtrack.
It’s neither too good nor too bad. Clairo and Antonoff manage to straddle the fence perfectly, standing squarely on the face of mediocrity. It collectively sounds very pleasant, a boring beauty.
In each new listen, the intricacies and gentle touches that first sounded timid appear more compelling, but ultimately never reach high enough to touch greatness. On first listen it sounded like a lullaby, something to lie in bed and play while falling asleep. After a few more spins it sounds like something to listen to while sipping tea, still lying in bed. I only wish she treated the instrumentals with the same focus as her lyrics.
This was one of the albums I looked forward to the most this year, and while my expectations weren’t met, Clairo still produced a lovely collection of music. It’s just not up to her normal standard of originality, and that is its greatest failing.