Jul 20, 2021
By Caleb Campbell
In 2019, fresh off the release of her debut album Immunity, Claire Cottrill—known professionally as Clairo—had gone from recording music in her dorm room to playing stadiums as one of the biggest names in indie pop in less than two years.
It was a whirlwind ascent, one that saw Cottrill opening for Khalid and Tame Impala, collaborating with ex-Vampire Weekend producer Rostam Batmanglij, and becoming a queer indie pop touchstone for the burgeoning Tik Tok generation.
Most of all, though, it left her exhausted. As she has since confessed, she wasn’t even sure she was going to make a second album. It took the forced isolation of quarantine to spark inspiration for her, most especially through her confinement with her family and her deepening appreciation of motherhood. All these experiences coalesced when Cottrill retreated to Allaire Studios, located on a secluded mountain-top in Upstate New York, to write and record her serene new album, Sling.
For her sophomore record, Cottrill once again teamed with a superstar producer, this time turning to Jack Antonoff. At this point, Antonoff already has a reputation as a ringer for pop songstresses, so much so that he’s earned his own dedicated backlash each time he’s listed on the new Taylor Swift, Lorde, or Lana Del Rey record. His work undoubtedly has a recognizably pristine quality, but this only works in service of the songs on Sling, rarely blunting their impact.
Unlike the lo-fi bedroom pop Clairo of her early work, Sling is autumnal and lush, teeming with ornate spires of strings, woodwinds, organs, and more. These cascades of symphonic beauty bolster moments of stark acoustic balladry, all backing Cottrill’s tender vocals and dense lyricism. Though the record was borne in the mountains of Upstate New York, its sound is thoroughly West Coast, pulling in influence from the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriters of the ‘70s filtered through the vulnerabilities and plaintive intimacy of indie folk. Think Joni Mitchell meets Elliott Smith, all with added hints of jazz and Beatles-esque orchestration. The resulting record simultaneously finds Clairo joined by legions of instrumentation, yet more vulnerable than ever.
Though the record is often dominated by downtempo lyrical showcases, it still has its bright spots. Dazzling disco grooves populate “Amoeba,” accented by Cottrill’s celestial layered harmonies, while the energetic drumming and chugging guitar of “Zinnias” bring a dose of subtle winding hooks to the record. One of the record’s emotional heights also comes with Cottrill’s tribute to Joanie, her new Chow Chow/Pyrenees puppy. The instrumental cut that bears her name darts between shuffling vintage piano rock moods, imitating its namesake’s own restless energy. Outside of those buoyant moments, though, Sling is a far more subdued work.
Indeed, where the album’s strength lies most is in the same internal ruminations that make Mitchell and Smith’s writing so moving. Sling tours through Cottrill’s past two years, bringing the breakneck pace of her life down to slow motion as she explores the exploitation of the industry and searches for stability.
As she pointedly notes with the record’s opening lines, “I’m stepping inside a universe/Designed against my own beliefs.” Just when most teens are looking at colleges and thinking about their first summer jobs, Cottrill was thrust into the spotlight. She recalls leering record execs on “Blouse,” wondering “Why do I tell you how I feel?/When you’re just looking down the blouse.” Later on “Management” she longs for a day when “I’ll have friends/And men who don’t interject.”
Unsurprisingly, a different life has been calling to Clairo. During quarantine Cottrill also got her own small taste of motherhood with Joanie, who acts as the record’s muse and guiding light, igniting a deeper exploration of motherhood and the divergent paths Cottrill’s life could follow. She paints a dreamy picture of domesticity on “Zinnias,” confessing “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.” Yet, that idyllic ideal is broken with “Reaper,” as Cottrill explores how her life and identity could change along with motherhood—“I’m born to be somebody then somebody comes from me.”
Sling is undoubtedly an insular record, delivering knotted lyrical vignettes that likely only Clairo could explain the depths of. She writes with diaristic specificity, referencing her friend Claud, her sister Abigail, the Atlanta suburb where she spent part of her youth, her night spent on the Suicide Hotline. Sling was written for Clairo and Clairo alone, offering her the respite and healing that she needed. She explores her stories of lecherous record execs, manipulative exes, and ever-present looming depression, but ends the record on a moment of quiet triumph, insisting on “Management” that “I’m doing it for my future self/the one who needs more attention.”
Throughout the record, Cottrill yearns for a home, a place of final peace and belonging. As Sling unfurls each new intimate detail, the album freely offers that same welcoming refuge to any who desire it, inviting each listener into the world of Clairo’s quiet reprieve. (www.clairo.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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