On her fourth album KT Tunstall strips away all of the energy that defined her last three discs; what results is neither a bad album nor one of her best.
On Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon, KT Tunstall slows things down a great deal. It’s quite the departure for an artist who once described her debut album as “girl stomp”. This fourth album sees most of the stomp washed away in the wake of quiet reflection. Tunstall has done this before, certainly, but usually when buffered by more energetic numbers such as “Fade Like a Shadow” to add some much needed variety. There is talent to be had, sure, but the overall effect isn’t as impressive as her past efforts.
“Invisible Empire” opens the disc with a subdued, faded-shadow groove that recalls Tiger Suit track “Golden Frames”. Much has been made of how this album is influenced heavily by the loss of Tunstall's father and separation from her husband. The opening track speaks to this heavily, and themes of loss, life, love, mortality and all that's in between dominate the record. “Made of Glass” continues the feather-light feeling and pulls off a nifty duality. Lyrically it could be a fable on how fragile life truly is, and yet on another listen, it could also be a lament to how fragile romance can be as well. And while this song traffics in this pleasant duality, “How You Kill Me” is a bitter screed to Tunstall's ex-husband wrapped up in lyrics and tone that are so sweet and peaceful, they almost make the listener miss the wronged-ex rage boiling within. In this moment a little of Tunstall’s old fire emerges: even if the song itself is funereal and slow-burning, the emotion crackling under the surface is very potent indeed. It takes until later on the disc for the mood to spark up again, this time in the form of a bit more upbeat track called “Honeydew”, a surprisingly structured song to show up on this, an album that has both death in general and the death of romance on its mind.
For all the ruminations on loss and longing, there are pleasant sentiments to be found amidst the more downbeat tracks. “Old Man Song” is one of the more uplifting tracks here, extolling the listener to not only enjoy their own life, but encourage their elders to do the same. It’s an unusual way to present the message that “age is just a number”, but Tunstall carries the message well with this track. And as things wind back towards her reflections on loves gained and lost, “Yellow Flower” feels like one of the moments where Tunstall wishes her marriage hadn’t ended. It takes a very fairy-tale-like setting and ladles it atop a track that is all wistful yearning and pining for her lost lover. It works as a strange counterpoint to the bitter fury heard earlier. Even so, it serves to make for a more balanced statement on love and loss, which makes it all the more powerful a song for doing so.
The problem with Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon isn’t that it’s bad -- far from it. Tunstall has a gorgeous voice, and the spare, minimalist arrangements let it shine from start to finish. The trouble is how she comes off sounding like Tunstall-does-early-career Jewel folk tunes. Also, those same arrangements which let her voice shine through are too slight, too wispy, leaving an album so ghostly and ethereal that it fades away like a puff of smoke the second the CD stops spinning. Allowing a bit more energy into the mix would have saved it from this trouble, but even the radio mix tacked on the end can’t quite save things. This is an album Tunstall likely needed to make, a catharsis in song that would inevitably sound far removed from her first three efforts. Kudos to her for taking the chance, with the caveat of hoping her fifth returns Tunstall to the strong, face-forward style she knows how to do so well.