The primary influence for her new album, Vanessa Carlton has said, is an oil painting by her grandfather Alan J. Lee, who was originally named Liberman. The painting shows three young women in various stages of undress, faces averted and looking down. Carlton wrote many of the songs while viewing the painting — eventually deciding to name the album after her grandfather — but her inspiration was less the subject matter than the medium. “The swirly colors of that painting reminded me of the music and the music reminds me of those colors,” Carlton says. If the Vanessa Carlton you know from her earlier hits are piano-driven, verse and chorus ballads about young love, you’ll be surprised by Liberman. We still have lyrics about relationships, but decidedly from an older point of view. And the soundscapes are refreshingly different, with piano still present but augmented by synthesizers and acoustic guitar, all blending in swirls of melody and harmony.
Back in 2002 a twenty-one year old Carlton debuted nationally with “A Thousand Miles”, and that smash single was followed by “Ordinary Day” and others, helping her album, Be Not Nobody, sell over two million copies for major label A&M Records. Her good looks, ability to dance (as a teen she enrolled in the School of American Ballet) and her songs’ memorable piano hooks suggested a promising pop career. But her following albums sold far fewer copies as the themes got darker and the songs less pop oriented; she was labeled a commercial failure. She has never seemed to mind, however, defending each album as the music she wanted to make. About Liberman she has said, “When I was first doing records I was so young and I wanted to please everyone. But now I sort of feel ancient and I love it and I just want to make art for its own sake.”
Not long after her previous album Rabbits on the Run was released in summer of 2011, Carlton returned to Real World Studios in late 2012 to resume work with producer Steve Osborne. The new album took shape slowly. About half of the songs were ready in fall of 2013 for live performances, a short tour during which Carlton announced that she was expecting a baby with John McCauley, the lead singer and songwriter of Deer Tick. The pregnancy turned out to be ectopic, and Carlton had a fallopian tube rupture and cause internal bleeding, which led to surgery. On December 27, 2013, Carlton and McCauley were married in a ceremony officiated by Stevie Nicks; shortly thereafter, she went back to recording, this time at the local Nashville Playground Studios, where she worked with Adam Landry and her husband. In June, Carlton announced that the new album’s release would be delayed because she was pregnant again; in January of 2015, Carlton gave birth to her first child, a daughter. On April 20, 2015, Dine Alone Records announced that Carlton was joining their label and Liberman would be out in October.
I tell this biography at some length not just because it’s interesting, but because she now seems to have found a zen-like position relative to the ups and downs in both her personal life and career. “It’s a calm record,” Carlton says. “I didn’t want any angst in there.” She has called the album lush, trippy, and beautiful, and indeed it is. But not because she’s singing fluff and avoiding difficult subjects. She’s found, instead, a way to engage difficult matters through oblique art that turns discord or confusion into peace. One of the album’s best songs, “House of Seven Swords”, references the tarot card the Seven of Swords, a card that appears when you need to be courageous, when you might need to change strategies, be daring. “Shaman won’t tell you / Preacher will try to / You could take your time and take a trip / Let your eyes see hidden things”. She goes on to sing, “Nobody can tell you how to build your House of Seven Swords”. In a career reading the Seven would suggest that you will have to be very resourceful if you wish to succeed in your job: playing safe will get you nowhere. And this is where Carlton finds herself in her career: swirling psychedelic sounds around artful, complex lyrics that combine to find a Zen still point is not playing it safe. Is not the vibe of pop. As she says in “Unlock the Lock”: “Feel it come on like a sudden hope / Bursting through a wall of stone / It’s beautiful as the sadness starts to quiet”.
The best songs on Liberman combine striking images and turns of phrase that you can contemplate listen after listen. There’s questioning here, about love, about life’s journeying. These aren’t sweet lyrics but the music she creates around them whirls light and energy. “Blue Pool”, for example, begins with a twinkly piano melody that sounds like a young girl’s music box; picks up momentum with bass, drums, and acoustic guitar; and then becomes layered with beautiful piano arpeggios. “Take It Easy”, for another example, uses common pop instruments, including synthesizers, but each instrument comes in less to add its own drive and more to build a counterpoint of rhythm and sound. “Matter of Time” features John McCauley on acoustic guitar, creating a catchy country folk song, unusual for Carlton. But the ethereal soundscapes on Liberman depend most of all on Carlton’s voice, which has grown from its early young breathiness. Her voice creates a sweet roundness. She moves effortlessly through fast runs, climbs up and down octaves, and her high notes and low notes are an equally interesting timbre: there’s a lightness to her voice, but not a lightweightness.
There’s no song on this album that’s going to get the 96 million views on Youtube that “A Thousand Miles” has received.Carlton’s going to be fine with that. Hopefully listeners go for the entire album, listening to the songs in order, to see the artistic vision of lyric and sound that the whole creates. More than the sum of its parts, Liberman gets more compelling the more you listen.