'Love Is An Art' Review: Vanessa Carlton's new album is a courageous exploration of music as an artform
After being away from the limelight for nearly five years, Vanessa Carlton is back with her sixth studio album 'Love Is An Art' all set to be released on March 27.
The opening track of this album, 'I Can't Stay The Same', is about looking inwards, forming a connection with the person that looks back at you in the mirror, and finding the courage to heal yourself and begin again. The song beautifully encompasses Carlton's journey as a singer and a person from her debut to now.
2011's 'Rabbits On The Run' was a little closer to Carlton's earlier work. The album even features an acoustic version of her debut single 'A Thousand Miles', the smash hit that made Carlton famous overnight and earned her multiple Grammy nominations. But unlike her earlier work, 'Rabbits On The Run' saw Carlton get increasingly personal and honest with her work, and to that end, this was a much better representation of her as an artist.
Her following release, 2015's 'Liberman' continued along this path. It was named after her late grandfather and saw the singer shift her more commercial pop sound to one that included influences from dream-pop, rock, and folk music. And in her upcoming album 'Love Is An Art', Carlton has further honed in on this sound and layering with more electronica and avant-garde elements, giving us something that sounds part 'The Corrs', part 'Björk', and part something totally unique.
'Love Is An Art' is by far Carlton's most experimental work. On the surface, it seems far more muted than the music that defined her earlier sound, but if you listen closely, all those elements are still very much present under the layers of electronica and art-pop, and the result of this genre fusion is an epic orchestral dream.
But in addition to her fascinating musical growth, Carlton's ability to weave emotional themes into her music is also an absolute standout in this release. The folksy 'Companion Star' speaks of a partnership that helps keep one grounded, always pulling you back to your path when you've strayed too far and have almost lost yourself, while 'I Know You Don't Mean It' speaks of how not holding someone down and instead, letting them go is what it means to love.
'Die, Dinosaur', written following the Parkland shootings, allows Carlton to delve into social and political commentary, speaking about a politician's greed and the love and grace children bring into the world. 'Future Pain' is a simple and powerful track about self-destructive habits that we always see coming but feel powerless to stop. Knowing exactly where we're heading, we still allow ourselves to walk right into inevitable pain. 'Back To Life', however, is a reversal on 'Future Pain', and speaks about finding the courage to make a change for the better.
'Patience' continues on this message stating "You are not alone / It is dark before the dawn / You need patience" before a burst of emotion escapes from a short piano instrumental. This interlude is perfectly placed on the album, right in between the journey through building connections and breaking free from harmful patterns, and the journey towards unconditional, limitless love.
The following track, 'The Only Way to Love' sees Carlton sing about being brave enough to let go and chase after a rare connection. Speaking about the track, the singer says, "When you believe in a relationship, in a connection, you are actually believing in yourself."
The energetic yet dark-sounding 'Salesman' speaks about marriage and parenthood, alluding to the gift of a child and the anxiety one feels when life is perfect because it can all come crashing down at any minute. But until it does, you give it your all. Closing track 'Miner's Canary' has some stunning instrumentals, including violin and piano solos that really elevate the dream-like feeling of the album. The song speaks of toxic relationships that keep one caged up, giving you just enough to survive and keep the relationship alive all while draining you of everything that makes you special.
Of all the songs on this album, however, it's the title track that truly stands out. It has a healing and meditative quality to it, with Carlton's soft vocals echoing through, helping you find an outlet for your pain. This song is what it feels like to break down after you've been strong for too long. The stripped-down instrumentals match the quiet, throbbing sensation that underscores that feeling of anguish, and the vocals and lyrics offer you a cathartic release.
And through it all, the singer asks you to tell her your story, she'll listen. Love is an art, and Carlton has found a way to transpose that into musical therapy.
The inspiration for this song and album came to Carlton in the form of Erich Fromm's 1956 book 'The Art of Loving', in addition to the singer's own personal struggles with the world as well as within herself. "Love is the energy you put out into the world," she says, "and it can be so incredibly messy at times."
This idea is beautifully enhanced by the instrumentals on this album. For Carlton, this record was about breaking free from her comfort zone and creating music that goes against what people would expect of her. She says, "What's going to happen when we do things that people assume are not naturally a match, like working with Dave Fridmann? I loved the idea of working with someone who’s known for a palette that isn’t associated with me, but it was a fit the second we started working together. Or what could happen when I sit with another writer and just collaborate?"
The cover art for 'Love Is An Art' features a striking image of a hand grabbing a tiger by its tail, capturing what it means to go after something that seems out of reach, perhaps too powerful for you. The quest might take you down several paths of failure, but as Avatar Aang said in 'The Legend of Korra', "When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change".
When you have nothing left to lose is precisely when you're open to taking the greatest leaps of faith. So, as Carlton asks, "Why not grab the wild animal...and see what happens?"