Clairo Takes a Defiant Leap on ‘Sling’

“Sling,” the second album from the introverted but openhearted musician Clairo, was inspired by two relatively common pandemic-era life changes: In the past year, the 22-year-old songwriter and producer born Claire Cottrill relocated to upstate New York, and adopted a dog.

Fans have been acquainted with Joanie, a part chow chow/Great Pyrenees mix, via Clairo’s Instagram since she was a puppy. The musician’s gradual acceptance of Joanie’s unabashed dependency and unconditional love forms the emotional arc of the album. (Joanie is also credited with providing “chimes” and “snoring.”)

One upstate lure was the scenic Allaire Studios in Shokan, N.Y., which Cottrill told Rolling Stone had a transformative effect on her sound: “Seeing mountains every day when you’re making music,” she said, “I suddenly felt the urge to put a horn on a song.” The transition from the gently kinetic pop of Clairo’s excellent 2019 debut album “Immunity” to the folk-pastoral “Sling” is a dramatic sonic leap akin to Taylor Swift’s shift between “Lover” and “Folklore.” Naturally, Clairo co-produced “Sling” with one of the architects of Swift’s Cottage of Sound, the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff.

Clairo first came to prominence almost by accident, in 2017, when the charismatic, self-recorded video for her song “Pretty Girl” went viral. It was a YouTube phenomenon (75 million views) but its vibe now feels proto-TikTok: a casually dressed, slightly bored teenage girl passing time in her bedroom by performing for her camera and an imagined audience. The easy charm of the video may have unwittingly diverted some of the attention from Clairo’s songwriting, but it led to a record deal when she was 19.

“Sling,” a strange, uncompromising and anti-commercial album, doubles down on the subtly defiant spirit that was already present on “Pretty Girl,” although this time Clairo’s target is not a narrow-minded partner but an entire industry poised to commodify and cash in on her artistry.

“I’m stepping inside a universe designed against my own beliefs,” she proclaims on the bucolic but itchy “Bambi.” The album’s arresting first single, “Blouse,” features haunting backing vocals from fellow Antonoff collaborator Lorde; “Why do I tell you how I feel, when you’re too busy looking down my blouse?” the two women croon like a long-lost ’70s folk duo. “Mom, would you give me a ring? One for the ride, and one for the magazine,” she sings on “Management,” a winking critique of the sort of image creation she has felt pressured to stage in service of her career.

Clairo may have initially arrived as an indelible product of the high-speed internet era, but the world “Sling” inhabits is miles from the nearest Wi-Fi connection. Its sound is proudly retro and humbly indie: Vampy Wurlitzers, woolly acoustic guitars and trilling woodwinds abound. At times, “Sling” sounds like Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” had it been released on the D.I.Y. label K Records.

Unfortunately, this sonic palette can make some of the less memorable songs bleed together, their meandering melodies and sludgy tempos failing to distinguish themselves. Tracks like “Partridge,” “Wade” and “Zinnias” get lost in dense, dizzying thickets of their own creation.

Clairo sings in a low murmur that occasionally surges with great emotion — “Sling” makes the case that her most direct vocal precursor is either Elliott Smith or Phil Elverum — and her various co-producers have experimented with different methods of recording her voice. If the avant-pop producer Danny L. Harle threatened to drown it out with bells and whistles on her 2018 EP “Diary 001,” Antonoff sometimes gives it too much space to roam. Rostam Batmanglij, the atmospheric-pop-minded producer who collaborated with Clairo on “Immunity,” had helped her find a middle ground, buoying and giving structure to her delicate sensibility without overwhelming it.

Clairo does pull off that balance, though, on the new album’s second track, “Amoeba,” a highlight anchored by funky, insistent keyboards and a steady beat — a song that manages to brood and saunter at the same time. Even more affecting is the acoustic ballad “Just for Today,” which, like the stunning “Immunity” song “Alewife,” finds Clairo to be a fearlessly vivid correspondent from the darkest corners of her depression. “Mommy, I’m afraid I’ve been talking to the hotline again,” she sings, her voice sounding childlike in its desperation but suddenly relieved by the release of this confession.

“Just for Today” is further proof of a pleasant surprise: There was always more depth to Clairo’s sadness and songcraft than could be conveyed by the three-minute synth-pop ditty that made her famous. It also demonstrates that her music is at its most lucid and effective when an extended hand — or paw — is drawing her back up to the surface. The definitive version of “Just for Today” might be the demo she posted to Instagram in January 2021, the night after she wrote it. “At 30, your honey’s gonna ask you what the hell is wrong with me,” she croons, and then suddenly dissolves into giggles. A yelping Joanie has jumped up and thudded against her guitar, trying to snuggle into her lap.

(Fader Label/Republic Records)

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