Clairo’s budget is too big on ‘Immunity’

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 6:34pm

Fader

NOSELL

Clairo has always been in her cute niche, a lo-fi bedroom-pop-singing lane. “Pretty Girl,” “Flaming Hot Cheetos” and “4EVER” are certified soft song slappers of summer 2018 that rounded out any moody playlist. Her music up to this point has been charming for its DIY sound, but Clairo herself seems to feel boxed in by the “bedroom pop” label. She fields the word most, and for good reason: That label for homegrown-sounding pop might not exist if “Pretty Girl” hadn’t blown up, and Spotify hadn’t run with it.

Now it’s clear she’s trying to break out of the box: In the beginning of Immunity, Clairo steers right out of her lane and slams the pedal full-speed down Indie Singer Street. The balladry of opening track “Alewife” is a change of direction — and that direction might be backwards.

Clairo’s singing has never been her selling point, and her delivery leaves more to be asked for on “Alewife” — and, well, just about every song. Traditionally, her voice has been a bit more buried in her music, but she brings it out in full force for her debut, caked with an uncomfortable amount of reverb. It’s almost like a retaliation, a mirror of her expanded audience, moving from muted singing beneath the blankets to the echoes of a concert hall. On “Closer to You,” that reverb is paired with autotune, which Clairo has firmly defended as a musical metaphor. In practice, it’s grating. She’s broken down many of her musical choices on Twitter in the wake of Immunity’s release, to which I can only say: Good intentions don’t make for good music.

Despite the professional mixing and engineering, despite the talent that went into this record, despite all the grand instrumentation, the production on most tracks are stale. The first four songs are underwhelming, never really building up from where they started, and the album feels like it’s meandering. “Impossible” and “Closer To You” are bland, with uninspired basslines and drum patterns over generic pads. The occasional guitar, piano or synth are played with apathy. “North” embodies a vague sense of indie rock with its pulsating guitars, but it fails to stand out.

Finally the album begins to pick up the pace with the lead single “Bags.” Upon a first listen in May, the indie rock direction was questionable, but Clairo actually leans into her strengths with an airy vocal performance, and that melody is just so catchy. The drum pattern and guitar strums of “Softly” sounds straight out of a lo-fi hip hop playlist, and the layers of singing and humming bring out an emotion that captures the summertime in song.

“Sofia” is the clear standout of the album. It’s built on the sounds that defined Discovery-era Daft Punk, and the French electronic duo is a clear inspiration for the composition. There’s a sleek melody, driving groove, gummy bass and signature Daft Punk synth arpeggios. The hook is magical and anthemic, doubly so because “Sofia, know that you and I / Shouldn't feel like a crime” so clearly captures a feeling unique to queer relationships. Alongside Clairo’s killer collaborations with UK producer SG Lewis, part of me wishes she’d ditched the indie rock direction and took more inspiration from house music.

The rest of the album is back to business as usual for Immunity: Bland balladry, indifferent indie and run-of-the-mill rock. Everything blends together into indistinguishable mediocrity.

It’s a shame that musically the album doesn’t hold up, because Immunity is weighty and dense with heavy subject matter. Clairo touches on being talked down from suicide, discovering her sexuality, her first experience with another girl, ex lovers and finding peace with the past. It’s intensely personal, a deep dive into the things that make up Clairo, and the clear, relatable messages that first drew listeners are still here. It’s just packaged in a much less exciting sound. I even found myself connecting with “White Flag” and “Feel Something” on an intimate level, but the lack of any real progression or musical build-up makes them boring. Immunity is so, so close to a show-stopper debut album, yet so far away. All it’s missing is a reason to replay it.

Oftentimes in art of any medium there is this idea that “pressure makes diamonds” — that constraints on production make for a better product as an artist works around those constraints. Clairo ascended her constraints when she shot up to stardom, but the big budget backing her has effectively killed the creativity that launched her in the first place. 

That’s not to say Clairo needs to go back to the bedroom. Album standouts like “Bags,” “Softly” and especially “Sofia” are clear products of studio time that couldn’t be born in a basement. There is room for her to shed the bedroom pop label and make music that’s much more grandiose. Clairo just doesn’t lean into her strengths on Immunity.