I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much from KT Tunstall’s third solo album, Tiger Suit. I wasn’t a huge fan of her debut, Eye to the Telescope, but did enjoy a few choice tracks, such as “Under the Weather” and “Other Side of the World”. Her percussive-heavy, almost A-melodic, songwriting structure wore very thin and continuously bordered the banal. I didn’t even bother to pick up her sophomore release, Drastic Fantastic. However, I’m a firm believer in giving artists second chances—hey, not everyone can be brilliant all the time. Imagine my surprise when four songs into Tiger Suit, I began to change my tune about Ms. Tunstall.
The album opener, “Uummannaq Song”, is a wonderful tone setter that sounds familiar enough to recall the singer’s style, but once that chorus hits where she sings: “I, oh well I could live in this town/Five cold years before I/Yes I could live in this town/Before I head for home”, it’s clear that she’s hitting new highs and challenging her own comfort level. The chorus to “Uummannaq Song” is wonderfully infectious, recalling the ‘80s pop hits of Luba, Alison Moyet, and Joan Armatriding. The same can be said for the Radiohead rip-off “Difficulty”, and Feist-ish “Fade Like A Shadow”.
The lyrical content suggests Tunstall underwent some life affirming and humbling experiences during the hiatus between Tiger Suit and Drastic Fantastic. Suddenly, she is less concerned with offering spoon fed folk/rock tunes that speak to what she believes you want to be hearing from her, and instead casts her gaze inward. She is mindful to not interject any of the typical arrogance that is standard for many pop/folk singer/songwriters of this decade, but is rather humbly introspective and self-reflexive. This is evidenced in the beautiful lyrics of “(Still A) Weirdo” where she sings: “I’d always thought it’s automatic/To grow into a soul less static/But here I am upon the same spot/Attempting to lift off into space/I don’t always get it right/But a thousand different ways/And I just might/Pay my lip service/Keep it eloquent/Optimistic but never quite elegant/Still a weirdo/Still a weirdo, after all these years”. Although there is a resemblance to Tunstall’s “Under the Weather”, the vulnerability and earnestness is more pronounced here. She has definitely dropped the pretense and lost the arrogant self-indulgence that assumes her shit don’t stink, and is instead trailing head-first through the infrequently tread path of pensive humility.
In stark contrast to the typical melancholic musical style that is synonymous with deep introspection, Tunstall prefers to drive her personal and thoughtful lyrics with what she ludicrously dubs “nature techno”. Pop is a more concise and appropriate term here, and the singer demonstrates her prowess in this department. She has always been half-halfheartedly pumping out Melissa Ethridge-esque rock, which is probably why her tone in past efforts has always bordered monotony. Tiger Suit kicks down these musical tropes with a little more fierce and suggestive focus than one could have expected from a talent like Tunstall. At some point after the heyday of musically adventurous ‘90s singer/songwriters, probably after the dawn of internet-savvy music thieves and the restructuring of music distribution, record companies became much less likely to allow their artists to change a winning formula. If an artist sells over a million debut albums, then nothing is to change from one album to the next—the follow up must sound almost like an extension of the first. It makes for a very safe way to produce music which never really translates into comparable success—unless you are Taylor Swift.
Tunstall’s Eye to the Telescope hit five times platinum with the aide of successful radio tunes “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See”. Her follow up, Drastic Fantastic, sold only a fifth of that with no memorable radio-friendly tunes. Tunstall’s fan base clearly waned and it seems, instead of driving down that same unprofitable road, she’s decided to re-route her musical career offering new productive elements that we have not necessarily heard from her before. That’s not to say that old Tunstall is completely absent on this third offering, though. Tracks like “Golden Frames” and “Come On, Get In” could have easily and quietly appeared on any of her previous efforts. It’s at this point in the album that I tune out, only to be reared back by the beautifully authentic “(Still A) Weirdo” with it’s human vocal percussive drum programming and swaying pendulum-like chorus. Her delivery is beautifully timed and charismatically sincere. This moment is nicely duplicated on the album closer, “The Entertainer”.
Although Tiger Suit does not dispel all of the monotony and percussion-heavy stylistic song structures that have plagued Tunstall’s desire to be a rock star in the past, there is enough of production shift here to warrant another go around. Tiger Suit has quickly (and surprisingly) become one of my favorite new albums, and deservedly enough. Tunstall has demonstrated her ability to change direction, drop pretense and offer true insight into the complexities and contradictions of life as a performer. We can only hope that she maintains this musical adventurousness and lyrical vulnerability on future efforts.