Artist: KT Tunstall
In Brief: It’s not as bold and inventive in the production and songwriting department as Tiger Suit, but KT wanted to make another pop album after the stark, downbeat Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, and I’ve got to admit that this side of her is more my speed.
KT Tunstall‘s been going through some real mood swings on her last few albums. After starting out with two records in the mid-2000s that split the difference pretty well between folksy pop and loop-driven indie rock, she went full-scale electro-pop for the majority of her third record Tiger Suit in 2010. While I’d liked her well enough up until that point, I absolutely adored that record. But there was still the issue of the more sensitive, bare-bones side of her persona that had been largely shelved for that record. It came back with about as much of a vengeance as a quiet, understated musical style possibly can on 2013’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, which I like to call her “desert folk” record since it was recorded in Arizona and very much influenced by the surrounding culture and scenery. It was pretty much wall-to-wall folk ballads with a bit of country inflection here and there, some of which were pretty and all of which were heartfelt, but taken all in a row, it just wasn’t a memorable listen for me. I can only imagine that fans of that record probably didn’t take too well to Tiger Suit and were probably hoping she’d hung up her “pop star” aspirations for good. She very nearly quit music entirely in the intervening years between that record and now, but upon rediscovering her love of songwriting, she seems to have swung firmly back in the pop direction with 2016’s KIN. And I, for one, am totally OK with that.
Where Tiger Suit was a very aggressive and daring record, building addictive rhythmic loops out of sounds that were often acoustic in origin and just tweaking them almost to the point of being unrecognizable, KIN seems more comfortable to go the more conventional pop route, throwing in synths and drum programming where a song calls for that energy, but still letting either the acoustic or electric guitar be the guiding instrument for most of its songs. This one was recorded in L.A., so maybe you could consider it her “sunny big city pop” record? In a way, this is more satisfying than the grab-bag approach on KT’s first few records, which had some great highlights but which felt a bit scattershot when listened to from end to end. It does sort of make me wonder if she’ll ever be able to reconcile the two extremes of her sound on a single record ever again, but then, a little versatility and the ability to make one album stand out from the next are not the worst problems for an artist to have.
I’m not going to pretend there were lofty artistic aspirations behind KIN, but the record has a strong theme of accepting and loving yourself for who you are and not having to pretend to be something you’re not, that draws me back to a lot of its songs despite it not having quite the same “you gotta hear this!” factor that Tiger Suit did. The breezy melodies are generally a good compliment to the personal epiphanies being expressed, which I like even though I have to admit she’s pulling from a pretty widely used bag of songwriting and production tricks here. And while a few tracks do seem to fall in line with the styles heard on her oldest records, you’re not going to mistake any of these songs for something as gutsy as “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” or as beautifully bare-bones as “Heal Over”. With those expectations managed, let’s dive in and rediscover an enjoyable and perhaps somewhat overlooked release that I didn’t really give a fair shake when I first heard it in the final months of 2016.
1. Hard Girls
If the garish album cover didn’t warn you that this was going to be a much more playful and up-tempo record, you’ll get a clue soon enough as this song gets revved up. You may as well have just walked into an aerobics class, what with the peppy beat, the mechanical buzzing of the guitar, and KT’s shouts of “Hey” and “C’mon!” and “You can do it!” and so forth. She’s chosen to tackle some identity issues on this track, diving right into the moral of the story as the chorus tells “soft girls” that they shouldn’t put up a “hard girl” facade. “You know that nothing changes/Just be yourself”, she sings cheerily, and perhaps it’s a bit didactic, but it’s also an effective way to remind us that her decision to make un-ironic pop music is what she genuinely felt like doing on this record, and not some sort of a calculated attempt to win back an audience who didn’t get her previous record (which, while I didn’t personally care for it, I can’t say was any more or less genuine). This may be a bit cheesy, but considering how common it is for female artists in this genre to feel like they’ve got to resort to a hypersexualized image in order to get attention, it’s nice to hear one basically say, “Y’know, that’s not really my thing.”
2. Turned a Light On
When albums follow more of a conventional pop structure, I tend to expect the bangers and the ballads to be laid out in a certain order, so having this mellower song at track 2, when it seems to my ears like the kind of thing that would work better at three or four, kind of distracted me from how beautiful of a song it was at first. It’s not like this is a slow or super-sparse song or anything – it’s got more of a laid-back, acoustic pop vibe to it, with a brisk enough pace to keep the record flowing along nicely. While the lyrics are pretty simple, lavishing praise on an individual who helped her get a new outlook on her life and basically gave her a reason to keep living it, I find myself really drawn in by the lovely chorus melody, and the glossy texture of the vocals contrasted with the sharpness of the acoustic guitar. Everything here is so crystal clear and refreshing, aside from the slightly muddled bridge, which makes the mistake of burying a few spoken-word lines in the mix so that you can’t totally make them out. Aside from that, this one’s easy to learn and a total delight to sing along to.
3. Maybe It’s a Good Thing
A funkier pop beat and a heavily sampled vocal hook nudge the opening of this song a little closer to Tiger Suit territory. At this point it’s a familiar recipe for KT, but the lyrics indicate that it’s another important stop on her journey to self-discovery, and she does a pretty good job of working her way up from a more ominous, winding melody in the verse to a bright and celebratory one in the chorus, indicating acceptance of where she’s found herself: “I can’t see what’s coming/And I don’t much care/Life has become one big stupid truth or dare/And maybe it’s a good thing.” I love how the guitars, beats, vocal samples, and what sounds like an organ play off of each other in the bridge. It’s an interesting kaleidoscope of sound, which I think pushes it a little harder to be unique than what you might normally expect from a bouncy, self-affirming pop song.
4. Evil Eye
This one’s got more of a syncopated bounce to it, and it’ll probably be a good connecting point for fans of KT’s old work, since it’s got the same overall beat and attitude as songs like “Suddenly I See”, “Hold On”, or “Come On, Get In”. I may have already noted that she ran the risk of repeating herself by the time the third song in that list came out, but dang it, she hooks me right away every time she does something like this. This one gives you a false sense of security with its breezy acoustic opening, but as soon as the electric guitars get going and she’s singing with more of a sinister sneer, it’s pretty clear that she’s hanging on to a grudge against someone who did her wrong, and she’s going to be giving him the old stinkeye until he owns up to his selfish ways and does something to convince her he’s actually changed. While the tone of it may seem a bit mean at first (and hey, who doesn’t enjoy taunting someone who acts like they’re “the poster boy for falling in love with yourself”?), I actually think the song does a pretty healthy job of establishing boundaries, basically telling the person forgiveness is theirs for the taking once they demonstrate that they won’t keep hurting her in the same away over and over again.
5. It Took Me So Long to Get Here, But Here I Am
It took me so long to write this song’s title, but… Nah, just kidding, it’s not like this is The 1975 we’re dealing with here. This one’s another straight-ahead, briskly-paced pop song which balances the acoustic and programmed elements pretty well, and which is brimming over with sentiments of finding one’s self-worth and not being afraid to speak up when others challenge it. That’s a pretty strong theme on this record, now that I stop to think about it. The title probably references her hiatus and near-retirement from life as a recording artist, telling us how she discovered her voice in the midst of the emotional wilderness that followed her last record. While this one seems so unstoppably positive in contrast to “Evil Eye”, I’m pretty sure the two songs are meant to be thematically linked, as that song referenced “an arrow for your chest” while this one talks about the self-restraint feeling like “it shot like an arrow into my heart”. It’s a subtle hint at the ways someone else’s mistreatment of you can become internalized and persist even after they’re gone, I think. A few of these songs are deceptively simple on the surface, but if you dig you can actually get quite a bit out of them.
6. On My Star
Richly layered acoustic guitars and more of a stripped-down vibe (it’s still very “pop”, but I love that you can hear the “bass walk” as the chords change) should make this an instant winner in the same vein as “Turned a Light On”, and I thought at first that it was. Unfortunately some rather poorly written lyrics torpedo its chances when the chorus rolls around. The sentiment that she needs to go far, far away with someone special as her only companion is usually one that I’m drawn to by default, but rhyming “star” with “far” and “money” with “honey” just kills it for me. Plus, if where they’re going is just an analogy because you can’t literally travel to other stars yet, why bother pointing out that “we won’t need money?” Is this trip just being imagined? If so, isn’t it obvious that it’s free? If not, isn’t space travel friggin’ expensive? I realize I’m overanalyzing and missing the point, but honestly, this feels like one of those lyrics where communication took a back seat to capping off each line with easy rhymes. I hate that kind of songwriting.
7. Two Way
I have the feeling I’m going to be at odds with some of KT’s fans over whether this track is considered a highlight. It’s a duet with singer/songwriter James Bay (who, sadly, is not from Canada and does not have a big brother named “Hudson”). Vocally, I like what he brings to the table, and I can see how the 70s rock/R&B vibe of this song, and the relationship issues it explores, call for a second voice. I just can’t help but feel that the lyrics are a bit generic – it’s one thing to reference that old cliché that a relationship is a two-way street, but beyond some vague hints about the person zoning out and fading away, and making promises that they never keep, it doesn’t really do a whole lot to illuminate the one-way nature of the relationship. It fits in well enough with the album’s overall narrative about knowing your worth enough to not get dragged down by people who fail to acknowledge it, but I feel like this one needs a lot more specificity to really shine. KT gets a brief moment to shine in an electric guitar solo as the two vocalists dovetail nicely near the end, but it’s not enough to save a song that spends most of its time being too laid-back and vague to really hit home.
8. Run On Home
Now this one really sounds like KT’s old style from about 10 years ago. You could have slipped it into the track listing from Drastic Fantastic back in those days, and I’d have been none the wiser. Acoustic and electric guitars and live drums are more dominant here while the pop programming takes a back seat, and the tone of it is more furious, perhaps even more of an ultimatum than “Evil Eye”, basically telling a person who tried to bend her personality to better fit his that he’s terrible at taking the abuse he dishes out, and he can go ahead and run crying home to mommy like the big baby that he is. She probably could have been even more vicious with this one, but she stops short of calling him anything truly nasty, making it clear that she’s purging these negative emotions for her own good now that she knows what love really feels like and has no need to hang on to her past. I like that even the angry songs on this record exude confidence. You can tell she’s secure about who she is and about no longer being who she was.
I struggled with the title track for a while. You know how sometimes, an artist seems so determined to let you know that a song is the central theme of the record that they repeat the title over and over, even when it doesn’t really flow with the rest of the song. That’s what the gentle echoes of “Kiiiiiiiiiiin…” at several points in this song feel like to me. It’s a very pretty song, the mellowest thing on the record by a long shot, scaling back the keyboards and bouncy beats, and letting finger-picked guitar and a pretty string arrangement take the way. The lyrics overflow with gratitude for someone who takes the time to ask how her day was, to make her feel nothing less than welcomed and loved, and who makes it clear that “I don’t have to win/I’ve already won from day one.” It’s a bit saccharine, to the point where it feels abrupt when juxtaposed with “Run on Home”, and I feel like I might have responded better to this as the closing track. Still, the calming and intimate vibe of it will probably resonate with a lot of listeners, and I do get why this song ended up being important enough to KT that she decided to name the album after it.
10. Everything Has Its Shape
KT gets a bit metaphysical on the last few tracks, and here she brings back the winning combo of acoustic guitar with programmed beats and keyboards that helped several other songs on this record to sink their hooks in right away. This song about building herself a heaven from the bits and pieces of her life that she’s enjoyed the most doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a winner at first, but when that chorus drops in and she pulls off a slick key change, it feels like a huge, triumphant moment. It’s such a simple thing, just changing up the key of a pop song that otherwise follows a very simple chord progression, and I do have to ask myself if I’d have found the song as memorable without it. But that’s the thing about pop music – there are so many tricks that have been done so many times over, and the real secret to it isn’t always inventing new tricks, but rather being savvy enough to know when one of those old tricks can be used for maximum effect. “You pull it apart and put it back together how you want it”, she tells us right after that massively satisfying key change, and at that moment I know she’s practicing what she preaches.
11. Love Is an Ocean
I’m not gonna lie – the closing track throws a pretty big cliché at us. It’s clearly meaningful to KT that her life is but a drop in the ocean that is all the love ever expressed by all of the people ever to occupy the universe, but she doesn’t really express it here in a way that I find all that revelatory. Thankfully she’s got another bright melody and a catchy “ba-da-ba-ba-da” vocal hook to instantly hook us in. She wanted to close this record out in a way that let us know she was at total peace with herself, and I can’t deny the power of such a moment of zen, even if in the real world I know such emotions can be fleeting. She probably put it here knowing she’d need the reminder the next time she fell short of her own expectations or someone was a total jerk to her. (Also, I do love the line “Look at me now, I’m still lifting off the lid”, since it references the chorus of “Chimes”, which was one of the few tracks I genuinely fell in love with on her previous album.) So I get why this needs to be the closing track. Still, since it fits in the body of a mellow pop song and the final chorus seems to trail off in a way that has you expecting another song to follow it, I’m going to reiterate my observation that closing with the title track would have made a lot more sense. Track order nitpicks aside, this is probably my favorite closing track on any of her albums thus far.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hard Girls $1
Turned a Light On $1.50
Maybe It’s a Good Thing $1.25
Evil Eye $1.75
It Took Me So Long to Get Here, But Here I Am $1
On My Star $.50
Two Way $.50
Run On Home $1
Everything Has Its Shape $1.50
Love Is an Ocean $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF