On impressive debut, Clairo broadens her bedroom pop while still brooding over love
On YouTube this week, beneath the video for Clairo’s song “Pretty Girl,” an ad presented viewers with a link to buy tickets for the singer’s concert Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Little about the proudly homemade clip, which Clairo posted in August 2017, suggests she’d be playing arenas 24 months later. Shot in her dimly lighted bedroom using the built-in camera on her laptop, “Pretty Girl” is about as scrappy as it gets, with Clairo mouthing the song’s arch but tender lyrics — “I could be a pretty girl / Shut up when you want me to,” she sings over a rinky-dink drum-machine groove — as white earbud headphones poke out from beneath her unwashed hair.
It’s the kind of thing that would’ve attracted a devoted cult following as recently as five years ago. In our fast-moving era, though, “Pretty Girl” went viral, racking up tens of millions of views and setting Clairo on a path toward the type of DIY pop stardom achieved by the only slightly more polished likes of Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X. Now, at 20, she’s on the road opening for R&B hitmaker Khalid ahead of Friday’s release of her eagerly awaited debut album.
The singer, born Claire Cottrill, delivers on that early promise on “Immunity,” which widens her sound without sacrificing the intimacy or the charm of “Pretty Girl.” Co-produced by Clairo and Rostam Batmanglij — the former Vampire Weekend member known for his collaborations with Solange, Frank Ocean and Haim — the album features more hand-played elements than did the synth-y “Pretty Girl” or “Flamin Hot Cheetos,” another old single with millions of streams on YouTube and SoundCloud; Danielle Haim plays drums on several tracks, while Batmanglij contributes guitar, bass and mellotron, among many other instruments.
“Alewife,” titled after a train stop near Clairo’s teenage home outside Boston, is a methodically paced ballad with ringing piano and strummed acoustic guitar. “Impossible” picks up the tempo slightly and adds a churchy organ played by Peter Cottontale, one of Chance the Rapper’s right-hand men; “Bags” has a crunchy ’90s-indie-rock vibe à la Liz Phair circa “Whip-Smart.”
For “Closer to You” and “Sofia,” Clairo revisits the knowingly chintzy electro-pop textures she started out using. But her singing has developed impressively in the last two years; she’s got a way of dropping in little R&B runs at the precise moments when the smallness of her voice has left you unprepared for them.
As with many songwriters in her Gen Z cohort — including Soccer Mommy, Phoebe Bridgers and L.A.’s Cuco, a one-time duet partner of hers who just put out his own excellent debut, “Para Mí” — Clairo’s thematic obsession is love: its pleasures, its torments, its tendency to stymie the woke idealist’s dream of an equitable society.
“I wouldn’t ask you to take care of me,” she sings, before adding, “Don’t you know that life is rarely ever fair.”
In April, Clairo told Out magazine that she’s not sure how to define her sexuality but that she knows “it’s not straight.” And indeed there’s such range to the love songs on “Immunity” that her romantic preoccupation never seems like a limitation; she sings about old-fashioned desires and about learning to understand new ones — and about what it means to experience both in the same body.
As she demonstrated in the “Pretty Girl” video, which functions as a kind of real-time critique of itself, Clairo’s specialty is putting across two ideas at once. “You want to feel something / But I don’t feel nothing,” she sings, “Trying so hard to get over you.”
That’s just one of the Instagram-caption-worthy lyrics on “Immunity.” In “White Flag” she name-drops My Bloody Valentine’s classic alt-rock album in remembering, “I was 15 when I first felt loneliness / Cut my hair, only listened to ‘Loveless’”; “Bags” has her asking a crush, “Can you figure me out?”
“Alewife” is darker; it recounts a friend’s intervention in what might’ve been a suicide attempt. Yet Clairo finishes the song with a bleakly comic flourish: “You know I’ll be all right / Eighth grade was never that tight.”
There’s a slight defensive streak to several tracks that could well be the result of suspicions about Clairo’s success so far. After “Pretty Girl” took off, some observers pointed with disdain to the fact that her father has worked as a high-level marketing executive for Coca-Cola and Converse — youth-oriented brands whose dark arts of persuasion, the thinking went, likely informed her seemingly off-the-cuff presentation.
But Clairo’s not trying to fool anybody on “Immunity.” She wants to connect, and she knows what that can do to a person.
(The Fader Label)
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