Album Review: Clairo - Sling
Near the end of 2019, or at the start of 2020, I asked an old friend of mine what her favorite records of the last year had been. Among the the list she sent me was Immunity, the full-length debut from Claire Cottrill—or Clairo, as she is commonly known.
Up until that point, I had only a passing idea of who Cottrill was—I feel like I recognized her name from seeing it in various headlines on Pitchfork or Stereogum; and when I saw the album cover on Spotify, it seemed vaguely familiar, though, in 2019, I had never made the time to take a listen, or to learn more about Cottrill herself.
Written almost entirely by Cottrill, and working in close collaboration with former member of Vampire Weekend and indie producer and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij, the easiest way to describe Immunity is as glitchy, dreamy, sad indie-pop. The production itself is meticulous and dense, with Cottrill and Batmanglij creating a richly textured, dynamic collection of songs that, with each subsequent listen after I first sat down with it—ordering a probably overpriced copy1 of it on vinyl from someone on Discogs—it became apparent Immunity was the kind of record that both reveals itself to you more and more, and for the listener, it was almost all too easy to become lost in.
There were two songs in particular that I was drawn to almost immediately from Immunity, and as the cold winter months at the beginning of 2020 began to recede into both spring, and the onset of a never ending unnerving tension, “Feel Something,” and “I Wouldn’t Ask You” found their way into small rotation of songs that I would regularly listen to on my walks to work—the morning air, chilled and often still, with the sun slowly rising in the distance.
Cottrill was all of 21 when Immunity was released, and her youthfulness shows in the photograph that adorns the album’s sleeve. Partially out of the frame, she looks down—away from the camera almost completely, forlorn, with long brown hair spilling onto her shoulders.
She looks young—and objectively, she still is, turning 23 this year. And it has only been two years in between, but in the photo of Cottrill that graces the cover of her sophomore album, Sling, she first appears much older; or, at the very least, it seems like she has grown or matured.
That’s the thing, though.
It has only been two years in between, but I doubt many of us look the same way we did in 2019.
I, often, believe I appear much older now—the myriad shades of brown in my beard giving way too easily to long streaks of white and gray; the lines and bags near my eyes that never go away; the weight I lost without the intention of doing so.
Have I grown, though? Or matured?
Cotrill, at least on the cover art to Sling, where she is cradling her beloved dog Joanie in her arms, appears older in part because of the way her hair seems much shorter. Though in all likelihood, it has just fallen or been tucked behind her shoulder; and perhaps she appears to have grown, or matured, because of the cozy, folksy aesthetic of the photographs she shares on her Instagram account—big, baggy sweaters, old pianos, enormous windows that look out upon a gorgeous landscape, spacious rooms with hardwood floors, mugs, and in many of these images, is often joined by producer Jack Antonoff2.
Sling, the result of a close knit collaborative relationship between Cottrill and Antonoff, is not the antithesis, or absolute polar opposite of Immunity—though it is, and it should be very apparent from the moment it begins, not glitchy, dreamy, sad indie-pop. Though it, much like Immunity, is meticulously produced and dense, and it finds the duo creating a very richly textured collection of songs. And even with the stark contrast, Sling, like its predecessor, is the kind of record that, with each subsequent listen, reveals itself to you more and more over time.
Recorded in the famed Allaire Studios near Shokan3, New York, Sling sounds like it is being broadcast from another place and another time, and from the moment it begins with Cottrill’s multi-tracked vocals over Antonoff’s graceful piano playing, to the lush, jaunty way it concludes, it is an album unabashedly full of warmth and nostalgia—a record released during the blistering hot and humid summer, that inherently sounds, as a whole, like the beauty and allure one could find within the give and take of the warm sun and cool, crisp air of an autumn afternoon.
The internet has a problem with Jack Antonoff.
Or, at least, Twitter—a very specific niche of Twitter, has a problem with Jack Antonoff.
Once a member of the “super group” Fun, responsible for the early 2010 hits “We Are Young” and “Carry On,” and having established his own project Bleachers, Antonoff has made a name for himself over the last decade or so as the go-to producer and songwriter for an impressive array of pop performers, including Adele, Carly Rae Jepsen, and St. Vincent—and famously Lorde, with Melodrama, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, and The (Dixie) Chicks’ return in 2020, Gaslighter.
Surprisingly dynamic in the way he is seemingly affable when working with, or collaborating with such a wide variety of artists—it is both easy to understand, for me as a listener, though difficult to articulate, for me as a writer, why he has been getting roasted so often, and so hard, within the last month or two.
Part of it has to do, I believe, with the concern that as a producer, or co-writer of songs, he has fallen into recycling what worked in the past—specifically using his work in Lana Del Rey’s masterful Norman Fucking Rockwell as a touchstone. Owing a lot to the 1970s “Laurel Canyon” sound of folk-rock, both in the lyrics and imagery, but also in the vibrant, warm, at times swooning instrumentation and arranging, it is something that Antonoff has been mostly unable to successfully recapture or replicate with such impressive results—though, is that, as a collaborator, what he is trying to do?
Some would argue he is trying to do just that, and his work on the Lana Del Rey album released in the spring of this year, Chemtrails Over The Country Club was cut from a similar cloth in places, though it lacked the urgency and immediacy of its predecessor.
The other part of this has to do, I believe, with the fact that two Antonoff helmed projects were announced within roughly 24 hours of one another—Lorde’s third album, Solar Power, and Cottrill’s Sling—and both of the album’s lead singles, “Solar Power,”4 and “Blouse,” respectively, find Antonoff working in territory familiar for him, but unfamiliar, or subjectively new for the artists in question, leading to dramatic tweets to the effect of, “What has Jack Antonoff done to my girls?”
He’s done nothing abhorrent—he co-wrote and co-produced their records. It’s just not the sound that people would expect from these artists.
Coming off of the rollicking, theatrical bombast of Melodrama, a short, breezy, mostly acoustic pop-song about the sun is not what you’d anticipate from Lorde; and following the skittering drums, forlorn pianos and keyboards, and gossamer guitar work found throughout Immunity, an introspective, finger plucked, string ladened ballad about misogyny in the music business is not what you might anticipate from Cottrill.
Antonoff’s densely layered production work, and intricate arranging on Sling is what makes it enjoyable, but it is also what, at times, can keep the listener at an arm’s length, because honesty, even if there is lyrical heft to a song, there are places on the album where Antonoff’s production and arranging simply does not work and can work against a song, or a specific moment within a song.
It is a record that is beautiful enough on the surface that it can be played off of a computer, or on a stereo5, but at times, there is maybe just too much going on, and the layers begin to overshadow Cottrill’s thoughtful lyrics—making it the kind of album that almost, to be understood, has to be listened to incredibly closely. There’s a built in intimacy to it, of course, because of the way it has been constructed so meticulously, though there are places where it becomes like a close friend trying to whisper you a secret that you are just barely able to make out through a beautiful chaos surrounding you both.
Seek to take, and give it all away—once you know it’s only a maze, there could be more days like today.
The mythology surrounding Sling, outside of originally declining to work with Antonoff because she didn’t feel like she was ‘mentally prepared’ to work with him, is that Cottrill almost walked away from music completely—the whirlwind, literal overnight success of her early, viral singles, followed by the toll touring in support of Immunity took on her mental health caused her to give serious reconsideration to her career as a performer. Sling, it should be noted, is not a “quarantine album,” though spending a bulk of 2020 with her family in Atlanta, it could be looked at as a reflection on or a response to a quarter-life crisis; a work that was, yes, born out of isolation, but using that time and solitude to grow—trying to unpack the things that had come before, then determine, as best as one is able to, what comes next.
Sling isn’t a concept album, though it is a tightly woven set of songs that often feel connected through both by Antonoff’s instrumentation and arranging, but also through the use of recurring themes that Cottrill has written into her lyrics. And while there is no one song that serves as the conceit, or thesis, for Sling, the tone—both lyrically, and musically, is set within the first two songs, which are among the strongest of the set, “Bambi,” and “Amoeba.”
And what I found, with additional listens as I have eased me way slowly into the intricacies of Sling is that, for as contemplative and hushed as it can be, it’s also a restless album—at least musically restless, with Cottrill and Antonoff often working through at least one shift, if not more than one, in a song. They aren’t huge, or distracting, but the grand, sweeping nature to which they arrive in the already robust nature of the record, adds to the feeling of another time, and another place.
“Spiraling Whimsy” is what I wrote down in my notes6 about Sling’s opening piece, “Bambi.” Beginning with layered, wordless singing from Cottrill, and a somber sounding piano, among other textural elements, the song quickly opens itself up to reveal a reserved, yet rollicking nature—something that will go on to punctuate a bulk of the album, and the shuffling rhythm, and later inclusion of clarinets and additional wind instruments reveals the strong commitment to the 1970s influence and aesthetic.
This gives way, then, to the surprisingly slinky groove of “Amoeba,” which pulses along with a sense of urgency and is, of all things, highly danceable—radiating with very strong Carpenters vibes, teetering into a nearly-disco, or almost funk inspired construction.
As the album progresses into the end of the first side and onto the second, Antonoff and Cottrill continue to work within this sonic palate, returning to the gentle, acoustic shuffling on “Wade,” then opening up to those restless musical shifts on “Harbor.” Later, as the record concludes, they move into slightly more focused, though equally as lush, folksier territory with “Management,” and “Reaper,” which was one of the first songs Cottrill wrote for the album, and the song that convinced her that, perhaps, she was ready to collaborate with Antonoff for the recording of Sling.
There are myriad themes, or ideas, or concepts, that Cottrill has written into the material on Sling, but there are two things, specifically, that stand out almost immediately. One is her somewhat surprising preoccupation with the concept of motherhood—the other, indicated very clearly in the album’s lead single “Blouse,” is the seemingly unending difficulties for young women within the music business.
Not every song about her struggles within male dominated “industry” is as blunt, or obvious, as “Blouse,” where she, over tenderly plucked acoustic guitars, and gorgeous, ornate strings, wrestles with the very notion of how far one must go to advocate for themselves, and their art—“Why do I tell you how I feel—when you’re too busy looking down my blouse,” she sings, before continuing on to a somewhat shocking admission. “If touch could make them hear, then touch me now.”
As the album opens, with “Bambi,” Cottrill is less direct, dressing up her frustrations in poetry and metaphor—“I’m stepping inside a universe designed against my own beliefs,” she sings as the first line. “They’re toying with me, and tapping their feet. The work’s laid out—cut out to the seams.”
Then, a few lines later, alludes to the option she both strongly considered before working on Sling, and what still seems to be on the table—“We both know I can leave.”
The album closes with “Management,” which isn’t an epilogue, or an afterward, but it does lyrically tie together the themes that have run throughout the record up until that point—letting out her frustrations with music as a “business” one more time: “Complain to the management about my lack of self respect. Fast forward to when I have friends and men who don’t interject.”
Motherhood, or at least a greater, larger responsibility to another, is surprising because of Cottrill’s age—Sling, though, is dedicated to her mother, and she explained in a lengthy profile with Rolling Stone that while living with her family during 2020, she began to see her mother as an individual, rather than just “her mom,” and also began to contemplate the possibilities of motherhood for herself.
These ideas appear, of course, in “Management,” sprinkled in fragments, but are also prevalent in “Reaper”—“There’s a claw on my shoulder and she’s saying the obvious: ‘You know eventually, you’re gonna have to be a provider, too.’”
It’s no secret, at this point, that the album really began coming together near the end of 2020 after Cottrill adopted her dog Joanie—who serves as the inspiration for an instrumental track within the second side. The responsibility for another life—in this case, an energetic puppy and not a newborn infant—or as she puts it, the idea of “becoming domestic” made her feel like a “person again,” she told Rolling Stone. “I think that that was the one thing I had always been lacking. She gave me a purpose.”
As charming, or sentimentally intended it is to create an instrumental piece structured around Joanie’s energy throughout a day, mixing in sounds of her snoring or thwapping a set of chimes with her tail, it is among the tracks included on Sling that are less successful. A beautiful album—yes; a good, well made album—absolutely; but it is far from being without flaws, and there are moments that simply just do not work, and the blend of loose, groove oriented, funk-adjacent guitar meanderings and piano riffs on “Joanie” don’t so much seem out of place, because sonically, they are very much in line with the rest of the record’s aesthetic. But there is something about it being a lengthy instrumental, placed within the final third of the record, that kind of brings the momentum of Sling down—an album, already moving along gently and slowly prior to this.
Among the complaints Jack Antonoff and his abilities as a songwriter and producer, there is a meme taken from the 1960s Spider Man animated series, where two Spider Men are pointing at each other—there are variants on it, where there are additional Spider Men involved, and I came across a tweet of four Spider Men pointing at one another, with the caption being: “Lorde, Lana, Taylor, and St. Vincent when they realize Jack gave them the same album.”
And I can’t continue discussing Sling without admitting that yes, within Antonoff’s recent production work for both Cottrill and his work on Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club, you can hear some similar elements at work—mostly what I referred to in my initial listens as “masturbatory guitar noodling that fails to climax.” This is most apparent on the frenetic “Zinnias,” which is probably one of Sling’s weakest moments, as well as on “Wade”; which is, lyrically, quite poignant, though the way the song is arranged through more of that musical restlessness and unnecessary guitar wankery distracts from the weight of the words.
And while, yes, the very rich musical nature of Sling is certainly an attractive quality to it, Cottrill’s thoughtful lyrics—often full of difficult or challenging observations on the self, or others, is the most important, lasting element to the record. Because of the nature of Sling, and how it is like a close friend trying to whisper a secret that you are just barely able to make out through the beautiful chaos swirling around you both, the emotional heft of her songwriting is the thing that takes the most time to reveal itself, resonating like looking at an old photograph and continually noticing something new, or understanding something you quite hadn’t before.
I often wince7 slightly at the idea of referring to lyrics in popular music as being “like poetry,” or am remiss to do so, but structurally, the songs on Sling refuse to follow what you might expect in terms of discernible verses and refrains, with only a few of them featuring any real repetition, or return, to lyrics throughout—“Blouse” being the most apparent, which is perhaps why it was chosen as the advance single for the album, though with an album steeped so heavily in restraint and gentleness, it would be difficult to identify any of them as a “single” in the more traditional sense. But Cottrill’s lyrics here have a sprawling, poetic narrative to them, letting the thoughts and fragments fall where they may, and how they may, against the musical bed created.
She, very frankly, depicts anxiety, or a sheer lack of enthusiasm, about social situations in “Amoeba”—“I hope tonight goes differently but I show up at the party just to leave,” and throughout Sling, there are moments where Cottrill, quite beautifully, reflects on the difficulties and tumult that can from either an extremely fractured relationship, or in the wake of a relationship’s ending—“I’m sorry I have to hold you longer than you expected,” she muses on “Partridge,” “It’s only temporary”; or within the album’s second half, on “Harbor”—“Eyes closed and I’ll commit what I wish I had with you—I’ll pretend until it isn’t true I don’t love you that way.”
“Alewife” is exactly what you think it’s about.
And at this point, I am uncertain how many listens through Immunity’s slow burning opening track it took me to begin to pick out the important lyrical points—“You saved me from doin’ something to myself that night,” and, “You called me seven times…I didn’t mean to scare you—just had the thoughts in my mind.”
Or, “Swear I could’ve done it if you weren’t there when I hit the floor.”
But there was a moment, and more than likely, it was when I was listening at close range, on a walk to work, when the gravity of these lyrics, and the narrative Cottrill was describing, really hit me—not so much making me feel seen, or attacked, as I often do with emotionally driven popular music, but it resonated.
The annotation for the song’s entry on Genius will confirm it, but “Alewife,” in all its simmering glory—icy keyboards, rolling and rumbling percussion, overblown and blissed out guitar strumming and that little riff that comes in at the end—the song is exactly what you think it’s about.
Selecting a song about mental health, and suicidal ideation as the opening track on her full-length debut is a bold, powerful statement—and she returns to to those themes on Sling’s finest moment, “Just For Today.”
Sling is, as you should have figured out by this point from either making it nearly 3,500 words into this review, or by listening to the record on your own, or both, an incredibly personal record, but “Just For Today” is, by far, the most personal, or at least most upfront and unabashed song among the set. Cottrill, apparently, originally hadn’t intended on including it on the album—instead, performing a very early version of it in a clip shared via Instagram near the end of January. Her fans, more or less, demanded that she record it for the album—“It was a kind of response I had never really seen,” she said.
…I’m afraid I’ve teen talking to the hotline again…
Lyrically, Cottrill swiftly pulls back the cloak on any kind of metaphor, or semi-ambiguous imagery after the first verse—which, itself, is harrowing and beautiful through the usage of vivid, poetic phrase turns. “I didn’t think I’d end up here this time, or anywhere at all,” she sings in the opening line. “I’m just distant enough to never fall behind.”
By the time she confesses to her mother that she has been talking to “the hotline,” again, there shouldn’t be any doubt in the listener’s mind what “Just For Today” is about, or the direction it is heading—and it creates a sense of realization that didn’t drain the color from my face, but it, much like the moment I had just last year with “Alewife,” resonated.
“The hotline” in question is, as you might expect, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and Cottrill has elaborated that she wrote this song after joining the service’s chat room one night. And from here, the depiction of her fragile mental health doesn’t become more graphic, per se, but her there is a macabre sense of humor to her candor, which is brutal in its honesty.
“I blocked out the month of February for support,” she confesses in the song’s second verse. “At least I have this year—I won’t be worrying anyone on tour.”
And there is, throughout Sling, a self-awareness to Cottrill’s lyrics, though this admission seems to me as the most self-aware, or at the very least, most self-referential on the album. Prior to the global shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, Cottrill had opted to take a month—the shortest, albeit, to work on her mental health before resuming her touring commitments the following month; there is, then, the punchline that comes in the second portion of that lyric in the form of a wink at the listener, and a near sigh of relief at “this year” away from life on the road, which she explains in the Rolling Stone profile, had exacerbated her anxiety and depression to the point where she was losing weight and her hair began falling out.
Before the curious, veiled conclusion of “Just For Today,” Cottrill writes in a small glimmer of hope—“As we speak, I’m here to meet devils for tea…I’ll throw my drink into the faces of my demise,” she states, before reaching the point in the narrative where one must explain, as best as they might be able to, their mental illness to another, which can seem, at times, like an insurmountable task.
There are, of course, a few ways one could dissect this lyric—“At thirty, your honey’s gonna ask you, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’” And regardless of how you analyze, or get turned around on the way the question is asked, and who might be asking it, it is the “you”—a removed, second person narrative—that is supposed to answer.
There is an enormous weight to the song itself, of course, but there is also weight—very real, and palpable, to the way Cottrill pens that final line: “Finally, an answer from your throat comes crawling, and you can proceed,” allowing that difficult image, based around a difficult conversation with a loved one, linger as the song ends.
Immunity ends with no resolve—the sprawling, haunting “I Wouldn’t Ask You” swirls into a conclusion with the repetition of the line, “We’ll be alright,” but there in uncertainty built around it—“Without you, I don’t feel strong.” You want, as the song ends, there to be a sense of hope, no matter how small a flicker it is.
But I just don’t know. There is a pleading, and a longing, more powerful than anything else.
I stop short of saying Sling is an album that ends without resolution, but it is also, from the moment it begins, a collection of songs that isn’t specifically looking for that when it’s over. These are more statements, or observations, no matter how difficult or emotionally charged they wind up being, with Cottrill and Anotoff setting them to richly orchestrated music, letting them out into the world. The surprising thing about Sling, as it ends, is for as gentle, or even whimsical, as it can sound at times musically, it is a record that, because there is simply so much going on, both musically and within the thoughtful lyrics, it does demand that you actively listen to it.
It does take time to really ease your way fully into Sling, but for as much as it asks of you, it is a very full, rewarding experience.
“I’m doing it for my future self,” Cottrill muses in the final moments of “Management.” “The one who needs more attention. I’ll forget to forgive, and hold it all in—I’m old with some resentment.” Sling isn’t a meditation on the human condition, but rather, a pensive statement on the permission we give ourselves to feel and to simply be human.
1- Just a quick aside here to mention that both the original 2019 pressing of Immunity, as well as the 2020 “1st anniversary” re-press, were both very limited, and with Cottrill’s continued rise in profile, the price of this album on vinyl has gone up. I probably paid more than I should have, but not more than I was comfortable paying for my copy.
2- Say what you will about Jack Antonoff as a producer, or songwriter, or the leader of his own band, but the guy has to be one of the hardest working individuals in the business right now. I’m just really impressed at his time management skills and ability to, presumably, multi-task projects.
3- A fun fact I learned while researching this studio for this review is that the first album recorded within the studio was Jay Unger’s Harvest Home, which features his very popular composition, “Ashokan Farwell.”
4- This didn’t seem like it made a lot of sense to force into the piece proper, but I think that the discourse that has surrounded Lorde’s “Solar Power” happens to be really unwarranted. It’s a fine song—depending on how you choose to listen to it, it might sound like it’s borrowing heavily from a song by George Michael or possibly Primal Scream. Regardless, it’s just a pop song—light, breezy, and ultimately fun. Just let it be.
5- Just a personal aside to discuss how I was burned, once again, by trying to order directly from the artist’s website. My copy of Sling was delayed in shipping for quite a while, which makes listening to these records the way I want to listen to them impossible, and it makes writing about these records the way I want to very difficult, though not impossible.
6- In case anyone still reading this piece and these footnotes is curious about my “process” now, it involves a lot of drinking alone, often on Friday evenings, but it also involves sitting with an album, as undistracted as I can make myself, and taking down quick notes or observations, song by song, which I then will use as I begin to work my way through when I actually begin “writing,” and once I get to the part of the writing that involves talking about the music, not just setting up the piece with a few thousand words of introduction.
7- I used to cringe at the idea of referring to lyrics as “poetry” because a good friend of mine, in college, referred to the lyrics of Conor Oberst as “fragile poetry,” and that expression still gives me pause, 17 years after the fact; however, I find more and more that I am referring to lyrics—ones that are steeped in strong, vivid imagery, as “poetry.”