Crisis and loss inevitably bring change. Sometimes that change is reflected in a dramatic change of context and direction. Perhaps this is the reason why Scottish songstress KT Tunstall’s new double-titled album Invisible Empire/ /Crescent Moon is so vastly different than her previous work. Perhaps it’s also why it’s some of the best stuff she’s ever released.
In fact, there were two catalysts for this shift of direction for Tunstall, occurring within weeks of each other: first, the sudden death of her father, and then her breakup with her husband, drummer and music director, Luke Bullen. An invitation by Howe Gelb to record in his Tucson studio seems now like serendipity, and Tunstall apparently jumped in with both feet. The resulting music carries a feeling of dusty desolation, a perfect backdrop for Tunstall to process a gamut of emotions—a far cry from the flirtations with electro-pop found in 2010’s Tiger Suit.
Of course, we’ve known for years about KT Tunstall’s songwriting abilities, but on Invisible Empire/ /Crescent Moon they shine brighter than ever—perhaps most remarkably in the fact that she is able to delve into highly emotional territory without getting uncomfortably personal. Don’t get me wrong—Adele’s 21 is an amazing record, even though Adele made no secret of its personal nature regarding her own breakup—but Tunstall takes a much different tack on this record, alluding to the loss of family and relationship without directly referring to either. Take, for example, “How You Kill Me”: “How you kill me / Taking up all of my patience / Leaving my temper a widow / But I don’t feel like grieving.” These lyrics can relate to so many different situations. Likewise, Tunstall seems to be dealing with the struggle to say goodbye in “Yellow Flower”: “Soaking up the tears if by magic / It’ll make me even warmer even after you’re not here.” Pure poetry.
Equally artistic is the duality that is prevalent throughout the record: two titles, each representing two sides of the album, which was recorded in two separate sessions separated by several months, processing two life-altering events, and each side taking a slightly different emotional turn. The “Invisible Empire” half of the album seems to grapple a bit more with the pain, while the “Crescent Moon” side seems to be coming to grips with it. The closing track “No Better Shoulder” is carried by the simplest of lyrics and seems to bring us to the acceptance stage of grief: “There’s no better shoulder / There’s no finer place / But one word of warning / You’ll never be replaced.”
All told, out of a place of grief has come a thing of beauty. Invisible Empire/ /Crescent Moon is such a dramatic departure for KT Tunstall that it is impossible to know whether she will stay in this vein. But whether she ever sounds like this again, she might just have made the album of her career.