Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Music Album Review: Clairo – Immunity

Album Review: Clairo – Immunity

Print Editor Aaron Loose reviews Clairo's debut album
5 mins read
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Print Editor Aaron Loose reviews Clairo’s debut album

Clairo looks like the perfect Generation Z pop star, and for some, that is her unforgivable sin. After dropping self-produced songs on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, the Massachusetts songwriter was flung into a world of Pitchfork profiles and Reddit takedowns after she released ‘Pretty Girl’, a sarcastic ditty about gender roles that went viral to the tune of roughly 40 million Youtube hits. Her official debut, released on a record label co-owned by a family friend, won’t silence the naysayers. But it sounds like a real beginning.

The prosecution against Claire Cotrill, the daughter of a well-connected advertising exec, claims that she is an industry plant – a manufactured artist whose seemingly sudden access is a focus-grouped product of industry meetings in secluded boardrooms. Authenticity, or the lack thereof, is the first place the internet looks when there is a female artist to be undermined. Remember when Lana Del Rey was cross-examined throughout the Born to Die press tour because she didn’t perform under her given name and cosplayed as a forever young Nancy Sinatra? It was good press.

But while the artist formerly known as Elizabeth Woolridge Grant did benefit from a WASP trust fund, the online commentary sidestepped any actual thinking about the rich psychological complexity of Del Rey’s performance of a star who was living public property, ready to be torn apart and distributed to an audience who gobbled up her powdered image like rock candy.

The careful lyrics are pensive notes on love and longing

Clairo’s situation isn’t so far away, which says everything that needs to be said about the slow evolution of music criticism’s relationship to talented women. Her pathway into a record deal was certainly easier, but you somehow doubt that a blazered fortysomething PR man could have planned the ‘Pretty Girl’ video, which was recorded on a crappy webcam. More importantly, these pop songs are not lightweight. The careful lyrics are pensive notes on love and longing, despite physical limitations.  

Certainly, the record has credentials that indie parochialists love. Clairo approached Rostam Batmanglij, the former Vampire Weekend guitarist and resident left field pop genius, to produce an EP in November 2018. However, their chemistry and shared experiences of coming to terms with their non-normative sexuality in public resulted in many more songs than either had planned. 

It’s a fruitful partnership. Clairo may count lo-fi troubadour like Frankie Cosmos among her influences, but even the hottest home setup would struggle to perfect the polished major label blend of baroque indie and aqueous chilliwave found here; this is bedroom pop recorded in a Los Angeles chapel. 

On ‘Impossible’, harpsichords flutter beneath a marching loop of rocksteady drums, until the song slides onto a billowing choral arrangement that’s as soft and airy as cotton wool. At times, Immunity sounds like a less hyperactive version of Batmanglij’s tinkering side project and electronic band Discovery; glamorous anti-pop wrapped in a crumpled t-shirt and played through a secondhand keyboard’s consumer presets. Yes, the production is richer, but Clairo succeeds at perfecting her sound without losing the intimacy that made “Pretty Girl” so shareable.

However, the soul of these wistful songs isn’t forged in the AAA-alternative production, but in Clairo’s songwriting. At fifteen, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and was often hospitalised. ‘Closer to You’ meshes a harsh lyric on living with a chronic illness – “Cause every time I start to get up/And now my head feels fucked up/And I know it won’t change” – with a lovelorn chorus about falling in love with someone’s quirks. 

 Clairo performing in Boston, May 2019

During an interview with Pitchfork released earlier last month, Clairo disclosed that she often spent the Immunity recording sessions doubled over in pain. Her honesty shows chronic illness as a fact of life that can still know pleasure, intimacy, and longing. Pop hasn’t every really acknowledged that physically disabled people might experience a rich inner life; this album feels like a long delayed corrective. 

The management of insecurity, both physical and emotional, is the recurring theme here. Take ‘Bags’, the standout lead single with drums by Danielle Haim. The pulsing guitar and thumping snares underline the urgent desire to reach out not just at any moment, but at the right moment – the exact perfect second where an outstretched hand into the unknown won’t be slapped away but grasped. “Pardon my emotions/I should probably keep it all to myself/Know you’d make fun of me”, she sings, steeling herself for rejection. 

Clairo and Batmanglij discussed cutting some gay anthems, but the twilit synthesisers on ‘Sofia’ suggest less of a bop than a prowler, witty and dark in the places where other songs might glimmer. Clairo doesn’t identify with a specific orientation, but her direct words will doubtlessly resonate with anyone who is persecuted for looking at the wrong people at the wrong time. “I just wanna say how I love you with your hair down” is just one of her lines that seems destined to be sung back at full volume in small arenas all over the USA. 

You might call those lines relatable. Almost everyone is. Relatable is an odd way to describe music. There’s always the question of who is allowed to be a figure of sympathy, and who is branded an outsider voice. I can’t remember a single piece of broadsheet criticism that called Kendrick Lamar’s West Coast autobiography Good Kid, M.A.A.D City relatable. Meanwhile, Clairo is an awkward icon, a symbol of unedited and untouched teenage womanhood. Kendrick, on the other hand, was a reporter from the far side. Times are shifting, of course, and Lizzo’s triumphant climb to the summit of the Billboard 100 is the real thing. But you cannot forget that Clairo’s privilege goes beyond a trust fund; lovelorn whiteness is commonplace, while anything else is a disruption.

Lovelorn whiteness is commonplace, while anything else is a disruption

Musically, her sonic palette is narrow, a shortcoming that’s especially clear in the latter tracks like ‘Feel Something’, which quickly joins the ever-growing Spotify snowdrift of soft songs about teenage disaffection that sound really good when you’re trying to finish an essay. Thankfully, Clairo’s pen is often sharper than her ear. Even while sleepwalking through a downtempo snoozer like ‘White Flag’, Clairo can still chuck out an evocative stanza like “I was fifteen when/I first felt loneliness/Cut my hair/Only listened to Elvis” – a fragment that reads like a perfect snapshot of a troubled youth. 

The closer ‘I Wouldn’t Ask You’ is a bifurcated suite; one half is beatless ambient pop, while the finale leans into modern gospel. Clairo’s unathletic alto floats over the instrumental while children’s choir chants a refrain: “We could be so strong/ We’ll be alright, we’ll be alright”. The outro somehow ends up recalling ‘SAN MARCOS’, the 2018 BROCKHAMPTON rap ballad that employed the London Community Gospel Choir to create a chilling plea for a life more meaningfully lived. 

When Clairo was first on the up, she claimed a kinship with BROCKHAMPTON’s DIY philosophy, and the forums threw a hissy. But listening to ‘I Wouldn’t Ask You’, you can detect a more profound connection. Both are young, media literate songwriters who understood the internet as a place where people who didn’t fit could remake themselves as the voices of their generation. Immunity isn’t perfect, but like the world’s most careworn boyband, there’s a sense that Clairo is ready for the distance. 

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