Album review: KT Tunstall, Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon

KT Tunstall has suffered break-up and loss, reflected in the split nature of the album. Picture: Contributed
KT Tunstall has suffered break-up and loss, reflected in the split nature of the album. Picture: Contributed
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KT TUNSTALL made her name as a commercial pop songwriter with a belting bluesy voice and a fondness for rootsy rhythms.

KT Tunstall: Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon

Virgin, £14.99


Over the years, she has sought to dress up her songs – her third album Tiger Suit, partly recorded in Berlin’s Hansa Studios, made enthusiastic use of an armoury of analogue synthesizers – and to stretch her wings, she left her acoustic guitar and trademark loop pedal at home when she joined Jools Holland’s Big Band on tour as one of their guest vocalists.

But her recent work has been characterised by a sparse solo simplicity. Years ago, Tunstall cut her teeth running an acoustic club in Edinburgh and she is an honorary member of Fife’s Fence Collective, periodically popping up to sing with her old buddy King Creosote. In 2011, she released The Scarlet Tulip EP, signalling a return to those folky roots. After three albums of glossy pop, the idea of stripping back the sound and exposing emotions appealed. Then, in the space of one month last summer, her dad died and her marriage ended so there was nowhere to hide anyway.

Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon was recorded in two distinct before-and-after sessions in Arizona with Howe Gelb of veterans Giant Sand (who Tunstall had first met and collaborated with on the Floating Palace project alongside Robyn Hitchcock, Krystle Warren and Martin and Eliza Carthy). The title is not some typographical affectation but an intimation of the two halves of the album.

The first, recorded early in 2012, comprises songs she wrote about mortality, spookily presaging the death of her father, David, a physics lecturer at the University of St Andrews, whose fun family science lessons inspired the title of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope. The second, recorded shortly after her separation, features songs which are, according to the accompanying blurb, “reflective of deeply felt changes in outlook and shifts in her personal life” – reflective of, but not specifically about her split from her band leader, Luke Bullen, because, yet again, they were all written before they divorced.

Opening track Invisible Empire is the key to the album, the moment when Tunstall acknowledges that her apparently perfect life is a house of cards. “I wanna burn this house… I wanna jump into the fire,” she admits in surprisingly chipper style. But rather than come out all guns blazing, trumpeting her epiphany, she finds power in a subtlety and intimacy which runs right through the album.

Minus her band, for reasons which are now obvious, she takes full ownership of the material and allows herself to be vulnerable on the likes of Made Of Glass, a meditation on fragility directly inspired by the death of a friend who gave her a glass vase as a parting gift. As elsewhere, her vocals are front and centre – on this occasion, she gives her soft, jazzy vocal delivery a country twist and executes a fluent Ennio Morricone-influenced whistling solo, possibly inspired by the wild west environment in which she made the album.

Gelb, her man in the desert, is a benevolent presence throughout, providing unobtrusive pedal steel like a balmy breeze, tasteful Tex Mex flavouring on their only duet Chimes or a dusting of guitar distortion for atmosphere on How You Kill Me, a soulful, sighing song about potential thwarted by self-doubt and lack of support with a loping, twangy guitar in the foreground.

Tunstall has never had so beautifully understated a backdrop to her songs – pizzicato violin on Old Man Song, a simple, naïve clarinet line on the contented Honeydew, tambourine and steel drums on Carried, an equal parts plangent and pleasant number about a body’s final journey to its resting place, which was written months before she transported her father’s ashes to London, and the shimmer of mellotron, strings and woodwind which supplement the fragile piano ballads Yellow Flower and Crescent Moon.

That fragility extends to Waiting On The Heart, an affecting ballad gilded with Gelb’s burnished country style, and current single Feel It All, which features Tunstall’s best vocal to date. The recording of this number straddled her dad’s passing and her marital split, and Tunstall captures and bottles the emotion with a performance that is all delicacy, grace and, ultimately, made-it-through-the-rain optimism. It is needlessly reprised at the end of the album in a band jam version which demonstrates, if nothing else, the value of the restraint shown elsewhere on the recording.

It feels more fitting to go out on the mood piece No Better Shoulder, for which Tunstall is joined by a haunting chorus of singers and a slowly swelling cascade of instruments, building up into a soothing psych country mantra that brings this lovely, low-key album to a natural conclusion.