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KT Tunstall - Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon


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Since her first album, Eye to the Telescope, in 2004, Scottish singer-songwriter and guitarist KT (Kate) Tunstall has marked out a territory with catchy pop songs. Now comes her fifth studio album, Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon, and it’s a solemn, almost pedestrian affair. These 13 tracks (15 or 17 on other, deluxe versions) mostly sound like a low-key rehearsal before the adrenalin and energy cut in. So, what went wrong?

The production is clear—each little whistle of a finger moving across a guitar string is there, giving a sense of immediacy—but there are no significant shifts in tempo or key to engage the listener, and Tunstall’s own emotional register seems blunted. This is odd given that the songs respond to her divorce and her father’s death. Some introspection and moodiness would be understandable, perhaps with a darker outlook, but not this flatness.

The backing is restrained, with an acoustic emphasis that provides a pleasant shuffle for “Invisible Empire”. The slow “Made of Glass” offers a faint sob that suggests distant or suppressed emotion that never rises. “How You Kill Me” would have warranted an angrier treatment rather than the restrained air of resignation it got; the tension is not enough.

“Carried” is vocally better, though still sleepy; the occasionally gritty images in the lyrics are undercut by a monotonously dreamy arrangement. The solemn “Yellow Flower” is pleasant, though its plain piano is unnecessarily augmented by a synthesiser. “Crescent Moon” is more arresting, its swelling instrumental break adding brief gravitas before lapsing back into ordinary vocals and images. You might have trouble telling one song apart from another up to this point. Tunstall’s voice floats effortlessly across all of them, and that is essentially the problem.

Luckily, the album changes gear slightly as “Waiting on my Heart” (track 8) shows more variation in the arrangement and singing. That’s quite a while to wait for more dramatic emotion to show, and while Tunstall still does not charge the songs with much enthusiasm, it is present in “Feel It All”, the track selected as a single for radio-play. It has a gritty break and some nice vocal undulations; if anything, you’ll be swaying to it rather than dancing, though. For the latter, you need to play the closing alternative jam version, which is looser and offers a slightly punchier guitar backing. For better or worse, depending on your perspective, Tunstall sounds uncannily like Stevie Nicks at times here.

“Chimes” introduces a male backing voice that nicely offsets Tunstall’s use of a higher register. “Honeydew” is a little too sweet, and burdened with dull woodwinds, but wait….the following “No Better Shoulder” is beautiful. The ting of the cymbals that segues into tougher sound, a soft and chiming loop guitar that evolves into more raucous tones, and an overall escalating backing, all provide a lovely texture that throws Tunstall’s soft singing into relief.

This album has lost the sometime bluesy vigour of Tunstall’s early work. Naturally, artists don’t want to repeat themselves, but you just need to be prepared for the melancholia of Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon, especially in its first phase.

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