Tunstall’s melancholic double album goes back-to-basics

Kate Jennings | KT Tunstall is the only artist whose albums I buy without first previewing at least two tracks.  From 2004′s Eye to the Telescope to 2010′s Tiger Suit her eclectic mix of musical genres never fails to delight the auditory senses.  And her latest offering is no different.  In fact it is even be better.

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KT Tunstall’s latest album is a back-to-basics departure from her usual upbeat pop-rock repertoire. Image: Source

Recorded in producer Craig Schumacher’s Wavelab Studio, Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon is Tunstall’s most melancholic album to date.  Given that in the past year she has lost her father and divorced Luke Bullen, her husband of four years, it is not surprising that this album has made such a drastic departure from her usual pop-rock perkiness.

The first half of Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon has become an eerie foreshadowing of the personal tragedies Tunstall suffered in 2012.  Written in the Tucson desert in collaboration with Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb the pain-filled lyrics inspire an aching melancholy in the listener.  Although these songs were written before the double blows of death and divorce fell their lyrics echo the suffering these events caused.

In “Made of Glass” Tunstall croons “Fire me in an oven / until I go hard enough / to deal with losing you.”  Although the track is about the sudden loss of a friend to pancreatic cancer, it could just as easily refer to her father’s death.  But in fact the only song she wrote during her period of mourning was “Feel it All” – and Tunstall has said that as soon as she wrote it she felt the need to share it with others.  “It just felt like a song that should be sung with other people,” she told Rolling Stone in a recent interview.

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Reflecting the Arizona influence, the album cover of Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon features Tunstall in the Arizona desert. Image: Sourced

The second half of the double album is a renewal of hope.  In describing the album’s tracks Tunstall says: “The early ones are introspective and uptight, but the second half is more of a rebirth.”  This can be seen in the songs “Chimes” and “Honeydew” which speak to finding new love.  ”No Better Shoulder”, on the other hand, consists solely of the repeated refrain “There’s no better shoulder / there’s no finer place / but one word of warning / you’ll never be replaced.”  Underscored by a haunting melody, the song slowly builds into an upbeat message of lasting love. Although the track carries the unique sounds of the new album it is also laced with the pop-rock elements reminiscent of Tunstall’s previous works.

Tunstall has credited Gelb with being the catalyst behind the new album.  The two met while touring with Robyn Hitchcock‘s Floating Palace revue, and hit it off immediately.  Working with Gelb was initially meant to be nothing more than an experiment.  “We didn’t know we were going to make an album,” Tunstall said.  Gelb, however, proved to be the answer to Tunstall’s desire to move away from the more formulaic recording methods represented by Tiger Suit‘s foray into electronica.

Recorded in Wavelab’s old-style studio, Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon was recorded on reel-to-reel tape.  This was undoubtedly a brilliant move by Tunstall as her digitally unenhanced voice captures the raw emotion of each song.  While there are a few technical errors that an electronic recording could have removed, these add an element of realism to the intensity of emotion that characterises the album.  It is clear that each track resonates with Tunstall on a deeply personal level.  The technical errors also lend each song its own sense of individuality.

The addition of more symphonic instruments including the tuba, flute, violin and clarinet add a new dimension to Tunstall’s usual musical trio of drums, guitar and piano.   And again it is the technical oddities that add to the understated elegance of the album, making it in some ways comparable to Angelo Badalamenti‘s score for Twin Peaks. The soaring melodies, tinkling trills and bluesy lilts created by the mix of instruments are a far cry from the usual guitar-percussion pairing we’ve come to expect from Tunstall’s songs.  Indeed in branching out instrumentally on the new album, Tunstall has created an album of breathtaking beauty that sticks in your head long after the final notes have faded.

Together with the haunting lyrics, the ethereal musicality of Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon showcases the maturation of Tunstall as an artist.  For those of who were anticipating the toe-tapping happiness of her previous works this latest offering will probably prove a disappointment.  Personally, though, I think the frank back-to-basics approach to life’s emotional roller-coaster is what makes this Tunstall’s best album to date.

“Invisible Empire” is about trying to control life and finding inner peace:

The “Carried” music video highlights the old style recording techniques used for Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon:

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