In the first second of the video for Clairo’s 2017 hit song “Pretty Girl,” the now-21-year-old indie-pop musician’s eyes snap to attention as she realizes her laptop has begun recording her. Familiar to any Photobooth user, it’s the fleeting, jolting realization that she must meet the eyes that might soon be on her. For the rest of the webcam-shot music video, which went viral shortly after she uploaded it, Clairo—aka Claire Cottrill—dances while serenely but jokingly mouthing the words to the song. A lo-fi ironic lament of feminine expectations, the song’s chorus—“And I could be a pretty girl / I’ll wear a skirt for you / And I could be a pretty girl / Shut up when you want me to”—wrapped riot-grrl bite in a veil of sugary electro.
Hailing from a small town in Massachusetts, Cottrill has been posting her music online since she was but a tween, but it was her viral hit’s head-bobbing quality that finally stuck. And dramatically so. As of this writing, “Pretty Girl” has had over 37 million views on YouTube. That success quickly landed her a recording and then a management deal. The following spring, with a couple more viral songs under her belt, she released an EP, diary 001, which tracked her romantic longing and interpersonal frustrations over her DIY pop sound. Since then, she left college at Syracuse University to go on tour around the country and collaborated with artists like Cuco, Danny L Harle, and SG Lewis. That sudden attention also placed Clairo at the center of an Internet conspiracy theory that she was actually an industry plant, a record-label-manufactured pawn optimized for hype and sales. (That theory was partly fueled by the news of her father’s music industry connections.)
No matter where you stand on that last point, it’s hard to deny that the potent, acute reaction Clairo’s music and story have elicited points to a certain of-the-moment desire for music that is as emphatically intimate as it is breezy. On Clairo’s debut album, Immunity, which scans like a collection of letters left unsent for fear of their intense earnestness, the appeal of her diaristic creations is more in focus than ever as she burrows into more consequential fare than on her EP. On the 11 songs, she contemplates growing distance from a loved one, betrayal and hopes for comeuppance, codependency, and coming to terms with the fact that your body can fail you (inspired by the singer’s experience living with rheumatoid arthritis).
Reminiscent of 1990s and 2000s ardent pop and rock acts from Nelly Furtado to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Immunity rises and falls with a driving rhythm, favoring a true-to-life ride through Cotrill’s lyrical highs and lows. But in a clear knell of Clairo’s newly focused vision, she saves the album’s longest track and showstopper, “I Wouldn’t Ask You,” which centers physical and mortal frailty, for last. A loving memo in two parts to a supportive partner, the song features an accompanying children’s choir that highlights the vulnerability and poignant neediness that beats at the center of any relationship. Moving from a wispy piano requiem to a soulful electro-pop lullaby, Clairo paints a relationship movement from hesitance to dependance before fully giving in to it. “I wouldn’t ask you to take care of me,” the children sing over and over in the anchoring refrain, a kind reminder that needing another person is neither unnatural nor weak. It shows off Clairo’s aim of distilling heartbreaking moments into musical moods, though she never abandons the catchiness that first tuned her audiences in.
“Bags,” for one, is an endearing, one-sided love song highlighting the overwhelming but seemingly insignificant quiet moments two people share. Its swaying guitar, drum, and keys are married with her affectless but delicate, tiptoeing vocals, which all point to the song’s central uncertainty. “Tell you how I felt / Sugar-coated melting in your mouth / Pardon my emotions / I should probably keep it all to myself,” she sings in the devastating bridge. Later, on the R&B-tinted pop song “Softly,” whispering guitar arpeggios against a drum machine and layered oohs and aahs convey a more self-assured side of love and desire. Reminding one of Lisa Loeb and Brandy, Clairo pays lighthearted tribute to the sunny promise of a romantic relationship yet to begin. Throughout Immunity, Clairo’s distinctive voice—coolly flat but as clear and delicate as the ring of a handbell—bolsters each song with a comforting mood of understated and self-assured openness.
The album’s best points arrive whenever Clairo leans into her feel for addictive melodies, as on “Closer to You,” which features Immunity’s best hook. Beginning over deep carrying synths and a skeleton of clipped hi-hat beats, she moves from ice cold verses to a chorus rendered dreamy by her layered vocals. At once evoking Kanye West’s 2008 minimalist rap masterpiece 808s & Heartbreaks and Mandy Moore, “Closer to You” shows Clairo reaching into her deep bag of influences while keeping her grasp of carefully examined intimacies. And yet, even with these clear landings of her creative vision, there are still moments when her intriguing curiosity betrays her. The transitions between songs can feel unnatural, as when the minimalist realm of “Closer to You” bumps against the pop-rock-esque mood of “North.” And at times her delicate voice loses out against slightly distorted instrumentation. The sparing instances of Auto-Tune can feel like vocal crutches rather than enhancements.
Clairo is no longer the DIY, online-only artist that her legion of devoted fans initially connected with. But her music maintains the gauzy, almost nostalgic lens on interpersonal magnetism that first resonated so loudly. With this latest release, she shares a point of view even more compelling than the not so serious song and video that launched her. Even as she’s feeling her sound out on Immunity, she’s never an artist without something devastating to say.