In September of 2020, Claire Cottrill posted a cover of Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ on her SoundCloud, a place that once served as a kind of diary. At first, her rendition seems relatively straightforward: a spare, tender version of an oft-covered classic, one of a few Clairo shared last year at a time when most of her peers had their own quarantine covers series. But like much of the 22-year-old artist’s music, its prettiness belied a deeper connection, tracing a line between the soft-spoken intimacy of ‘70s singer-songwriter music and the inherent vulnerability that exists in the DIY spaces from which she emerged. It was an early taste of what we would be getting with Sling, her sophomore full-length, an intimately rendered tapestry of influences that also include Joni Mitchell (after whom she named her new dog) and the Carpenters, and which Clairo infuses with what is slowly but surely becoming her signature style.
Immunity was no ordinary debut, but it had all the qualities of a great one: retaining and amplifying the emotional impact of Clairo’s formative songwriting while experimenting with a few different genres, with help from co-producer Rostam Batmanglij. Sling might be seen as a pivotal shift, a retreat into a kind of songwriting that carries less of the distinct flavour she brought to the bedroom pop scene – if her earlier demos are lo-fi and often unsubtle, this is low-key and markedly reserved, even insular. But far from betraying a lack of originality or openness, here she sounds all the more attuned with what makes her songwriting unique, rather what the industry would like her to represent: part of a wave of generational talents changing the pop landscape, one in a list of many. And so her solitary presence on Sling – which was recorded at a mountaintop studio in upstate New York – feels more like a necessary personal choice than a marker of pandemic time: “I just have to face that there’s no real place/ To go and I could really be alone,” she realizes on ‘Wade’.
Looking beyond its cozy presentation, the musical spirit of the new album is not all that removed from that of Immunity: what Clairo does is funnel her reverence for soft rock and pop into a more recognizable and cohesive palette, exhibiting even more restraint as she holds back the layers of fuzz and reverb that were all over her debut. Her co-producer this time is the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff, who nails the ‘70s pastiche just as he did on St. Vincent’s latest album, although both the reference points and the driving impulse vary significantly. All the sonic signifiers of a singer-songwriter album from that era are here – Wurlitzer, Moog, violin, flute, saxophone, and 12-string acoustic guitar are among the many instruments that make an appearance – but Antonoff adds a touch more colour with occasional flourishes like the bass licks on ‘Amoeba’ or the flurry of wind instruments that chirp through ‘Wade’.
More interestingly, however, the way Clairo immerses herself in this musical backdrop mirrors the way she plunges into an exploration of domesticity and motherhood – not as an active participant but an imaginary one, engaging with these ideas through the kind of aspirational, future-oriented lens that often invades one’s early 20s. Just as she wears her influences to suit her own sensibilities rather than acting as a vessel for nostalgia, she is able to assume the weight of responsibility and comfort that defines those experiences despite not living them as a reality. “Quietly, I’m tempted/ Sure sounds nice to settle down for a while/ Let the real estate show itself to me/ I could wake up with a baby in a sling,” she sings on the standout ‘Zinneas’; and she tempts us quietly, too, foregoing the immediate hooks of her prior work in favour of understated melodies whose deeper resonance reveals itself over time.
For Clairo, contemplating the future is more than just a game of fantasy or a means of disassociating from the present. If anything, it’s a direct result of paying closer attention to those around her: her rescue dog, who is both featured and honoured in the wordless grace of ‘Joanie’, and her mother, with whom she spent a significant amount of time during lockdown. The common thread is clear: How do we reckon with a loved one’s individuality when most accounts of their life are based on stories and photographs? How do we capture the sounds of the past when all we have for reference are old LPs? The answer, Clairo suggests, is to lean in closer; and the first song that emerged from that introspection is ‘Reaper’, a short and plaintive song – one of two featuring backing vocals from Lorde – that takes on an almost existential tone: “She’s coming closer, I can feel her breathe,” she sings of Joanie in a soft whisper, adding, “I keep forgetting that I’ll have a family.”
At the same time, Clairo grounds her songwriting in the wider context of her present struggles with fame and mental health. ‘Just for Today’, a song that was only included after Clairo saw the response it got when she shared an acoustic snippet of it on Instagram, she admits, “Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again.” It’s a heartbreaking confession, not least because the last time she discussed suicide in her music, on the opening track of Immunity, her parents had no idea why police officers were showing up at their door after a friend she was barely close with made the call. Her need for validation and connection has only grown more intense, and the language she uses to express it all the more potent: on ‘Harbor’ she turns her focus to a romantic relationship in which she “scrounge[s] for understanding,” only to end up harboring herself away from everyone else.
It’s in this state, “half-awake and intimate,” that we find her on much of Sling, and though she could have used the enveloping instrumentation to hide herself entirely, it often has the opposite effect. ‘Harbor’ is an excellent example of how Clairo continues to play with dynamics on a smaller scale: just as the fairy tale waltz of the instrumental lulls you into a dream state towards the end, her voice rises up with clarity: “Know myself better than I have in years/ I don’t know why I have to defend what I feel.” Even though she describes being sexualized in the music industry with poignant honesty on the lead single ‘Blouse’, and those experiences have undoubtedly shaped her as a person, both her confidence and her sensitivity shine through on Sling. Its hushed tone is in perfect harmony with the rhythm of her needs: “Rushing so I can beat the line/ But what if all I want is conversation and time?” she affirms on ‘Bambi’. Earlier in the song, she establishes her position, “stepping inside a universe/ Designed against my own beliefs.” With Sling, she draws from her forebears to create one that fits her own consciousness and curiosity, one we can all find comfort in.