As Clairo, Carlisle-raised Claire Cottrill has been one of bedroom pop’s brightest stars, with songs like the breezy “Bags” and the galloping “Sofia” blending potent hooks with immediately observed lyrics about life as a young queer woman. On Clairo’s second album, “Sling” (out Friday), Cottrill broadens her musical horizons in thrilling ways, expanding her sound and making her songwriting shine even more brightly — and her observations on the modern world hit even harder.
Cottrill began posting songs online early in her teenage years, and she first became prominent in the pop world in 2017; that year she released “Pretty Girl,” a singsong, bare-bones track with an incisive view of teenage-years gender politics (“I could be a pretty girl/Shut up when you want me to,” she sings). While its production is ramshackle (Cottrill said in a 2017 interview that its synth stabs were from “a little keyboard that I had”), its insistent melody and gimlet-eyed lyrics made the then-19-year-old Cottrrill a quick star. Clairo’s debut full-length, “Immunity,” followed in 2019, and it highlighted her evolving songwriting while smoothing out her sound just enough. Musically, Clairo fit nicely into the music-supervisor-beloved genre of female-fronted, synth-tinged pop, although lyrics to songs like the shimmering “Alewife,” a thank-you to a friend who helped Cottrill during a depressive period, defied easy consumption.
Clairo toured with capital-P pop stars like Dua Lipa and Khalid, and racked up huge streaming numbers. Staying the course for her second album would have been one way for Clairo to go. Instead, for “Sling,” Cottrill hunkered down with uber producer Jack Antonoff at a studio in a particularly remote part of upstate New York and threw back to the early ’70s, drawing inspiration from the likes of Joni Mitchell and Blossom Dearie for an album that’s like a lace-sheathed blade, beauty surrounding each parry at modern life’s anxieties and indignities.
“I’m stepping inside a universe/designed against my own beliefs,” Clairo croons to open leadoff track “Bambi,” a gently plucked bass serving as her counterweight. The velvet-lined track frames Cottrill’s voice in woodwinds, providing comfort against any nagging feelings that she might be experiencing. The vibe of “Sling” is very rooted in classic pop, although details at the edges — quivering background vocals on “Amoeba,” the encroaching echo on the closure-celebrating “Little Changes” — speak to the always-on nature of life in 2021, and its attendant disquiet. “Blouse,” meanwhile, is a simply stated rebuke against the sexism Cottrill has dealt with during her short time in the spotlight, and the way it musically builds — from acoustic guitar to full-on orchestration — echoes ever-gaining inner strength.
“Joanie,” an instrumental, is one unexpected highlight. According to a recent “Rolling Stone” profile, the track — named after Cottrill’s rescue dog, credited as adding chimes and “snores” — is supposed to chronicle a typical day in her pup’s life. The way it cycles through moods is a wonder: dreamy interludes where Cottrill in chorus with herself segue into bits of a soft-rock strutter that showcases the keyboards she’s been able to access since her initial forays into making music — a clavinet, a Moog Model D synthesizer, a Wurlitzer organ. Another is the album closer, “Management,” which opens with Broadway-borrowed brassiness before stress causes her to swoon into languor; as she sings “I’m doing it for my future self,” strings tangle around her, trying to lift her up from the malaise she’s trying to hide. Even though these songs are compact, their intricacy and curiosity hint at what Cottrill can do when she’s unconstrained by the expectations tied into writing a pop song. “Sling” represents its own defying of predictions for Clairo — and Cottrill — and it’s an extremely satisfying listen as a result.