On her Blue Note debut, KT Tunstall does a musical about face from the bright, shiny production and uptempo pop of 2010's Tiger Suit and 2007's sparkling Drastic Fantastic. Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is a gentler, more organic collection. The split title reflects the album's linked themes of mortality (the death of her father) and the end of love (a divorce), and the two different sessions helmed by Howe Gelb in the Tucson desert during the spring and winter of 2012. The shifting signifiers in her lyrics and the subtleties of these simple yet effective melodies required an empathic, intuitive producer who would color and highlight rather than define. Together, they deliver ig. Despite using occasional strings, steel drums euphonium, woodwinds, and even a mellotron, this is not a slick affair. In fact, it's easily the warmest, most natural-sounding record in her catalog. Despite the weighty life events that inspired the songs, this is hardly a "dark" album. It's serious and looks deep; its songs find truth in unlikely places, but they never despair. "Made of Glass" is a soulful waltz in which the protagonist reveals her weariness in grieving -- but accepts it as process and transition. Colored by an elegant vibraphone, pedal steel, whistling that could have come from a Morricone score, winds, and brass, Tunstall's voice glides through the mix, embracing the tension between sorrow and waiting for its end. The single "Feel It All" -- which also has a reprise "Band Jam" version as a bonus track -- is spare, bluesy, desert Americana. Acoustic and electric guitars come together and separate in sultry contrast. John Parish's shuffling snare and kick drum walk it out as Tunstall expresses the wide-open, raw tenderness the heart encounters as it embarks upon a new reality fraught with dangerous possibilities. Her lyric expresses that vulnerability is not just the cost of humanity, but its gift. The vocal duet between Tunstall and Gelb on "Chimes," caressed by accordion, Spanish guitar, and reverbed strings, is the most delicate, lovely tune here. "No Better Shoulder" commences as a shimmering acoustic ballad, but evolves, becoming a vast psychedelic expanse of layered textures, near sultry enveloping reverb, and ambient spaces, as it unhurriedly builds to a careening climax. Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon details emotional and mental states in the stages of transition from grief to acceptance and looking forward; but the constant thread running through this beautiful set is that the core experience of loss is necessary -- and even welcome -- in order to celebrate "…the table of this life."
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