We are a long way from lo-fi. What immediately stands out about Sling is how lush and organic it sounds. Fundamentally, Claire Cottrill has not diverged all that far from the low-key DIY songcraft that made “Pretty Girl” a YouTube sensation four years ago, but the presentation could not be more different. The singer-songwriter once known for wringing depth out of tinny keyboard presets and unvarnished webcam footage has now immersed herself in a Laurel Canyon fantasia. Wurlitzer, Mellotron, Rhodes, Moog, B3, piano, pedal steel, slide guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, 6-string acoustic guitar, ukulele, flute, clarinet, clavinet, violin, cello, saxophone, Kalimba, Nyatiti, Farfisa, chimes, vibraphone, upright bass, fretless bass: All this and more swirls together to lend Clairo’s whispery ballads a retro cinematic splendor. One of the leading lights of bedroom-pop has delivered a full-fledged studio-pop album.
There was, of course, music between “Pretty Girl” and Sling, most importantly a debut album that cemented Clairo’s position as a transformative figure. On 2019’s Immunity, Clairo and co-producer Rostam Batmanglij blurred the edges between pop and alternative rock — the kind of synthesis that has been central to Rostam’s approach from his Vampire Weekend days up through his work with Frank Ocean and Haim, this time in tandem with a burgeoning Gen Z icon who once swore allegiance to twee cult hero Frankie Cosmos and jazzy Starbucks CD rack mainstay Norah Jones in the same breath.
It was a fruitful mind-meld. Songs like the breakup lament “Bags” and the chiming radio hit “Sofia” (an attempt to hybridize the Strokes and Robyn, and to introduce Clairo’s bisexuality) kept the raw ingredients of her music on display — the moody guitar and keyboard chords; the drowsy reflections on heartbreak, depression, and self-actualization — but under a translucent sheen, laced with savvy musical accents like bits of floating piano and beats that slapped a lot harder than her old home recordings. The album leaned more into the pop or rock tropes depending on the track, sometimes even coffeehouse jazz and soul if you squinted hard enough. On the whole it felt like a new archetype, one that helped codify a bedroom-pop sound that has unexpectedly opened up a whole new lane in mainstream music.
On Sling, out today, Clairo pivots sharply yet softly away from that style. Rostam is out as co-producer, replaced by Jack Antonoff, who seems to find his way to every critically acclaimed female pop star eventually, from Taylor Swift to Lorde to Lana Del Rey. Clairo and Antonoff have crafted a different kind of 1970s pastiche than the dirty downtown NYC tribute he recently made with St. Vincent. Although recorded at a mountaintop studio in upstate New York, Sling teems with the tenderness and ornate beauty of Southern California’s most immaculate singer-songwriter albums. In a new Guardian profile, Clairo invokes Joni Mitchell, the Carpenters, and Harry Nilsson as reference points. The resulting work resembles contemporary indie singer-songwriters like Natalie Prass and Bedouine: intimate in lyrical focus, vast in musical scope, and eschewing modern trends almost entirely. Her Carole King cover from last fall makes so much sense now.
On first pass the arrangements jump out much more than whatever is happening underneath. Less charitable listeners may hear it as pop music that doesn’t properly pop, and it’s true enough that urgency has never been Clairo’s strong suit. She’s a vibes-first artist; she has always tended toward modest, understated songwriting that prizes emotional expression but doesn’t get all up in your face. As such, her hooks on Sling are delicate and soft-spoken, and they are often overshadowed by whatever gorgeous sonic weather pattern is building or dissipating around them. Whereas visceral drum sounds were a key factor in Immunity‘s aesthetic, more often than not the percussion on Sling is subtle or nonexistent. Even most of the more upbeat tracks on the album have a wispy, sighing quality about them. The beauty is apparent right away, yet the songs take time to reveal themselves.
Sling rewards that investment, partially through choice turns of phrase that emerge on repeat listens. As telegraphed on lead single “Blouse,” with its portrait of leering executives oblivious to Clairo’s wants and needs, some of these memorable lines are about her struggles as a young woman in the music industry. “I’m stepping inside a universe designed against my own beliefs,” she sings at the start of “Bambi,” the pointedly titled album opener. “They’re toying with me, and tapping their feet.” On “Just For Today,” she seems to embrace quarantine as a reprieve from the mental health toll of life on the road: “I blocked out the month of February for support/ At least I have this year I won’t be worrying anyone on tour.” Closing track “Management” includes droll observations like “Complain to the management about my lack of self respect/ Fast forward to when I have friends and men who don’t interject.”
Sometimes, the context is romantic relationships under duress. “I don’t know why I have to defend what I feel,” she laments on the dreamy, jazzy piano ballad “Harbor,” a song about the exhaustion of clinging to a relationship that’s not working. “Little Changes” offers this damning verdict on an ex: “He loved me good enough to calm me down/ But tried to trick me into little changes.” More often, though, Sling finds Clairo focused less on finding the right person and more on becoming the right person. “If you don’t do the things you do/ They’ll just happen to you,” she reflects on “Wade.” “I’m doing it for my future self/ The one who gets more attention,” she remarks on “Management.” On the disco-tinged delight “Amoeba,” she paints a knowing portrait of a privileged social scene, excoriating peers who live “in hell and in disguise” but not sparing herself: “I can hope tonight goes differently/ But I show up to the party just to leave.”
Notably, just before that she critiques an acquaintance for not calling their family enough. Clairo wrote much of Sling while locked down with her family in Atlanta during the pandemic. She talks in that same Guardian interview about how the experience helped her realize her mom lived a whole life before she took on the roles of wife and mother. This, plus the rescue dog and newly purchased rural Massachusetts property that have been omnipresent during the album’s promo campaign, got her thinking about her own future. The album’s most fast-paced track “Zinnias,” which unfolds into a brisk panorama worthy of Fleet Foxes’ Shore, explicitly lays all this out: “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, just a couple doors down from Abigail/ My sister, man, and her ring.”
Scoff if you must at a famously well-off indie-pop singer toying with a retreat into a remote enclave. Admittedly, there are parallels to all those rich celebrities disappearing to their vacation homes at the start of the pandemic last year. But Sling is not a document of oblivious prestige, and Clairo’s visions of domesticity are not all so idyllic. On “Reaper,” one of two tracks featuring Lorde’s backup vocals, she wrestles with the prospect of a transition from beneficiary to provider and the attendant shift from protagonist to supporting character: “I’m born to be somebody then somebody comes from me.” As on so many Sling tracks, such thoughts are integrated into a more complex big picture, woven together with flickers of prospective romance, nostalgia, and self-doubt. The album’s musical richness is mirrored in these multifaceted self-portraits, artful dispatches that find Clairo increasingly attuned to herself and the world around her. Though it’s by far the most vivid music of her career, broadening her musical horizons in unforeseen ways, Sling also circles directly back to Clairo’s origin story: It’s pretty, and yet it’s so much more than that.