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Most people encountered Clairo for the first time on Youtube. She was a familiar sight to many: a girl with hoop earrings, mousy brown hair, and earbud headphones sitting in a dorm room, dancing poorly to a lo-fi pop song. Between the Christmas lights, the oversized Dunkin Donuts coffee, and Claire Cottrill’s finger dancing, most girls who went to a liberal arts college in America can probably relate to the aesthetic of “Pretty Girl” — and the lyrics hit home, too: “I could be a pretty girl / Wear a skirt 4 u / I could be a pretty girl / Shut up when u want me 2.”
As the lyrics bop across the screen in hot pink bubble-letter font, though, Claire does something unexpected: She shakes her head, disagreeing, revealing the sarcasm underlying her chorus, and, perhaps, how the reality of a person’s feelings can differ from the words they type on a screen. The song comes off as both mournful and playful, a sweet spot of funny-sad emotion that’s been hitting in the pop world lately (just ask Ariana Grande), and when the homemade video went incredibly viral in the summer of 2017, Cottrill quickly earned an album deal with Fader’s label, released the diary 001 EP to prove she wasn’t a one-hit-wonder, and got to work on indie-pop fame in earnest.
Two years, and a mini mountain of faux-outrage over her father’s connection to Converse’s now-defunct Rubber Tracks music program later, she’s emerged with a fledgling debut album, and one that points to the progress she’s managed to make in the meantime. The songs on her new album, Immunity, are crisper and darker than “Pretty Girl,” and her renewed confidence and presence might be attributed to new experiences like opening shows for Tyler The Creator, Dua Lipa, and her current slot as support for Khalid. Out today, the record has already racked up a bevy of positive reviews, even if none of the singles have had quite the impact “Pretty Girl” did.
While diary went kookier with “Flaming Hot Cheetos” and sweeter on “B.O.M.D.” (boy of my dreams) with Danny Harle of PC Music, Immunity kicks off with a song called “Alewife” that seems to directly confront a near-suicide attempt. And, whether she’s writing about a perfect crush, losing herself in a toxic one, or recovering from an almost fatal depressive episode, Cottrill’s direct-yet-beautiful lyrical style evokes peers like Lorde and Grimes. Her songs are sometimes so matter-of-fact that they cross back into the realm of poetry, spinning facts into poetic webs by laying them bare: “Swear I could’ve done it if you weren’t there when I hit the floor.”
Whether or not these songs are supposed to reflect the inner life and IRL experiences of Cottrill as diary and “Pretty Girl” purported to, the songwriting stakes are immediately higher — and the sonics are more complex, too. That can be attributed, in part, to the production and co-writing of Rostam Batmanglij, aka the guy who adds velvety sheen not just to Vampire Weekend, anymore, but a whole host of other indie-pop acts. Rostam plays the grounded veteran to Cottrill’s teen dream, and together, they make Immunity sound as fluffy as cotton candy and impeccably restrained. To achieve one or the other is a normal feat, to achieve both at once is remarkable.
Immunity’s lead single, “Bags,” is reminiscent of early 2000s slow-pop hits that singers like Dido and Sarah McLachlan made accessible, but she always manages to veer away from the saccharine just before it becomes too sweet. A potential Dido allusion comes up later on the album, on a song called “White Flag” that sounds nothing like Dido but keeps the same components: pearly vocals, itchy percussion, pinwheel melodies. But while these two leaned adult contemporary, Clairo’s age, internet savviness, and instinctual moves toward homespun over glossy make her music a blueprint for indie-pop success.
Again like Lorde and Grimes, Clairo manages to avoid the happy endings at all costs; even the endless-crush anthems are entirely ambiguous about their conclusions, whereas singers in the McLachlan and Dido era usually confirmed heartbreak (“Angel”) or happiness (“Thank You”). Even if she’s come out as queer on Twitter already, “Sofia” is a gorgeous rendering of the horrifying, giddy realization that a friendship has become something entirely other — at least on one person’s end.
On the album’s second single, “Closer To You,” Cottrill opts for autotune on her otherwise crystalline vocals, leaning more into the Bon Iver version of the tool than a hip-hop variety. Warping her voice only seems to further emphasize how perfect it was to begin with, but plenty of singers with pretty voices don’t get as far as Cottrill, because they can’t write the manias she knows by heart.“The things you do / only make me want to get closer to you,” she sings on that second single, after setting up the implication that this person might not be in her best interest.
In a Twitter thread, Clairo took the time to explain that the song is about knowing someone isn’t right for you, and trying to get through anyway; she used the autotune, here, she says, to imply the separation between the two. And while she may not be getting through to this person, the song cuts to the core for her digital-savvy, emotionally-freaked young audience. When the IRL feelings do match the digitized words, the stakes are higher and the outcome is darker. But Clairo has built up a tolerance. And while it might remain ambiguous whether or not she is going to stay, for now, the dose is perfect.
Immunity is out now via Fader Label. Get it here.