I’m not sure why this should surprise me.
KT Tunstall’s latest offering to the CD world carries with it the all-too-eager, all-too-cute name of Drastic Fantastic. Maybe that’s reason #1. Reason #2 might be a little more complicated. Perhaps it speaks to the nature of many of us, that we find it hard to believe that an artist can simply come out of nowhere; that we’re too jaded by stories of corporate tomfoolery and viral marketing campaigns; that so rarely do honest-to-god instant successes scorch the musical stratosphere in ways other than those masterminded by men in high-rise buildings wearing powersuits that we’re no longer inclined to believe it can happen. We believe that these artists are doomed to failure once the element of surprise has gone, so much so that we look for that failure, we expect it, and we predict it to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, the expectation of failure is so great that we’re disappointed when something other than failure comes to pass.
Still, it’d take someone awfully cynical to be disappointed in the success of Drastic Fantastic. Tunstall’s second full-length studio album (not counting, of course, the stopgap-and-proud-of-it Acoustic Extravaganza release) is a wonderfully sage effort from an artist suddenly endowed with an audience, and thankfully — perhaps miraculously — she knows what to do with that audience.
First, she kicks that audience in the face. I mean, it’s not heavy metal — Tunstall knows as well as anyone that she probably wouldn’t sell too many albums that way. Still, it’s a confident, even brash move to start her album with something other than a bouncy, fluffy, easily digestible track like the singles that made her the quietly popular star she is today. Instead, we get “Little Favours”, which is something like Melissa Etheridge singing an Indigo Girls song. Or vice versa. I haven’t decided yet. It’s all rollick and roll, with a deft vocal touch that contains just enough tenderness next to just enough grit to come off as multifacited rather than unfocused. Granted, there’s not much of a hook, and it’s far from the most memorable moment on the album, but it’s about starting with a sound more than it is about starting with a song, and Tunstall’s got just the sound to match the vaguely ironic rock ‘n’ roll pose she’s adopted for the album cover.
For seven of the first eight songs, she keeps up the pace she sets on “Little Favours”. Song after song is energetic, playful, and usually just long enough to make its peace with the listener and go on its merry way. Only the beautifully submissive “White Bird” breaks the early-album string, choosing instead the path of subtlety and beauty — “White Bird” lends Drastic Fantastic some weight. Where so many of the quicker tracks on Drastic Fantastic simply appear to exist for the sake of giving Tunstall’s listeners something to bop along to, “White Bird” is far more intimate, introspective, inviting. “White bird with a black tail / You look like an open sail / Made me look up from my shoes / To show me what you stand to lose,” she sings, and while it’s never clear what the target of her metaphor may be, she’s certainly alluding to the hint of dirt amongst the pure. She might be looking in a mirror, she might be looking at The Pope, or she could be looking at an actual white bird with a black tail; the point is that it’s open to interpretation, it’s enough to make you think.
“White Bird” also serves as the first hint toward another pattern on the album: The slow songs are uniformly fantastic. Of the first eight songs, seven of them are the quick, confident bits that Tunstall has staked her name on, and while none of them have the instant, wordless hook of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” or the instant catchiness and wide-eyed wonder of “Suddenly I See”, they do their job. When Tunstall slows things down, however… “Sit at my table / Sip from my bowl / Feel like I know you now / And I will do until I get old,” she sings in a way that makes those words seem far weightier than they look on paper. Those lines are from “Beauty of Uncertainty”, a sort of love song devoted to the rush of running headlong into the unknown, likely in reference to dropping one’s guard in the presence of new love, and they’re just perfect, honestly. Placed against the finger-picked minor-key acoustic guitars and the shuffling beat that holds back just enough to let Tunstall’s voice lead the way, they’re perfect, betraying a woman whose charming naïveté has now given way to a sort of knowing wisdom. That she (or whichever savvy record exec chose the running order for these tracks) chose to let her ride the quiet momentum of “Beauty of Uncertainty” through two more quiet, beautiful tracks (“Someday Soon” and “Paper Aeroplane”) to close out the album only heightens the experience of the one that turned the album’s tides.
It makes sense that the album might be structured this way, if only as a way for Tunstall to say, without repeating herself, that despite the confident facade she may offer in her public persona, she’s still the same person she was. That photo on the cover? It is laced with irony, Tunstall is not a rock ‘n roll goddess, she’s just a singer-songwriter with stories to tell. So yes, I am surprised and happy for Tunstall, because I was, admittedly, expecting failure. Drastic Fantastic is not so much a revelation, and song-by-song, it might not even quite surpass its predecessor in overall strength, but it’s proof that she’s for real. There’s something to be said for that.