KT Tunstall: A Guide through her Universe. PART 5:

The synth kicks in and she’s got you.

Sound bleeds through the speakers in your head and she takes the opportunity to penetrate you with the melodies she’d been considering, forming, crafting and finalizing for the last three years. Three whole years in which Tunstall had seemingly taken leave from public life – the folk rock girl had disappeared – at the height of her fame. With a Novello under her belt she’d taken her mid-life vacation and changed her orbit from the stages around which she now frequented to the waiting rooms of airports and the anonymous bus terminals she sought out in an attempt to find herself in the haze that had pushed her over the edge. The KT on Drastic Fantastic had been a faux-creature, a synthetic being in her eyes. She’d allowed herself to be moulded into something by someone else – and the stubborn Fife Collective alumna had had enough. So, she legged it. And when she came back, she gave us this masterpiece of an album. The never-ending stream of sonic energy that is Tiger Suit.

“Hold your fire.

I’m coming out and I’ll tell you the truth:

I was trying to raise my roof.

Did you see it?

That I needed to prove that my stinger always stays.

You said she’s beautiful when she plays.

Did I hit you in the proper place?”

These are the lyrics with which this massive examination of agency begins. Tunstall, in recent years, had begun to feel insecure in the effectivity and affectivity of her art. She’d looked at the artists she admires – Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Carole King – and had been longing after the feeling the same about herself. Drastic Fantastic had not been the way to do that and, because of that, the massive contrapuntal experience of Tiger Suit begins.

 

She expresses her melancholia in this regard on the album’s first track “Uummannaq Song“. She wants to change. Life has gone a certain way and she wants to redirect it. There’s a desperation for difference present throughout the track’s running time; a constant mode which is externalized over and over:

“You know that feeling you get when you don’t want to leave?”

 Her monologue demands understanding, becoming interactive and necessitating the engagement of the listener. This album won’t be like the last – it’s not background music.

The album’s second track “Glamour Puss” is the one on which one of the album’s most important modes finds its genesis – that of admonishment. Tunstall takes up a kind of podium here and uses it to deconstruct the psychology of her ostentatious character. Of course she’s projecting here – she’s mad at herself for having kept up appearances for so long; for having succumbed to the stimulus of the machine. It’s an attack on pretense – on denial of the state of things. In the way that her character is told to stop caring about the gaze of the anonymous onlooker, she needs to stop worrying about just that.

This album is a process of catharsis. On “Push That Knot Away” Tunstall keeps the heightened, organo-pop, synthy and fast-paced feel of the album going. She sings about letting go of negative energies and recognizing self-worth and personal agency – addressing the invisible listener who makes an appearance so often throughout this album. She keeps her lyrics loaded at every turn, making sure to keep you around. On this track – which feels so much like “Beautiful” by Carole King  – she sings about being good to yourself, and on the next track, “Difficulty”, she sings about a self-defeating dynamic. On this record KT ruthlessly moves toward self-fulfillment.

You change every day.

You hear KT not just telling micro-stories, but thinking in grand scapes for the first time since Eye to the Telescope. She places her lyrics well, they sit interestingly on the ear. She’s awake again – melodically, syntactically, artistically –

“I’m governed by difficulty”

– she places the words in a way Alanis Morissette perhaps would. Screwing with traditional emphasis, making sure that this album’s feminist tendencies sink into even the spaces between syllables as she firmly reprimands herself for self-oppression, and engages a mode of self-reflexiveness so hard come by within the mod-pop scene – which she is now rebelling against almost wholly – at least thematically.

Though, it has to be said – the sound of this album is so unique. I look to Alanis Morissette’s “Flavors of Entanglement” for comparison. But, even that feels laboured.

 

The album’s poppiest track and single “Fade Like A Shadow” comes and goes, and then comes “Lost” – a break from the commotion. It’s a moment of stillness on the road – a look at the sunset after a high-impact drive. On this track, Tunstall’s ever-present and overarching artistic theme of uncertainty rears its head and is handled with a familiar melancholia. She strips away the frills and decor in the room, lays on a concrete floor and converses about her common denominator. But, as soon as she settles into it, as if afraid of stasis, she’s off again – within the track itself even – bringing back the drum machines and synthy drive one comes to expect from the record.

“Am I an idiot?” she yells so genuinely that it grabs you and sits you down.

The drive then continues with “Golden Frames“, a warning against attachment to that rogue leader she has been battling for years – convention. A kind of self-oppressing box, or frame, within which one pins oneself down.

“Be careful of the golden frames.” she says.

“Be careful of the golden frames.” she sings with a bass vocalist in tow.

Then “Come on, Get In!” happens and I’m happy. Back-up vocals with an unceasing rhythm and drive, and drums that just won’t quit shape the track which I’ve long suspected is about her divorce from her former drummer Luke Bullen – part of her massive reshaping and personal backlash against convention that she discussed at length during her Oxford Union address.

From hereon in the record, like a well-written play, moves to it’s close, and things get quite blatant. “(Still a) Weirdo” – the album’s lead single – makes its appearance and Tunstall, without a stitch of obscurantism or pretense on her person, talks to you. She trims away the multi-layered norms of the album and sings in a style reminiscent of her early days about the primary issues on her mind:

“I’d always thought its automatic

To grow into a soul less static.

But, here I am upon the same spot

Attempting to lift off into space.

I don’t always get it right.

But, a thousand different ways and I just might.”

This song is simple and honest. It’s what art is about. She’s writing the first word; the actual intention. She’s not “muddying her waters so they may appear deep.”

The record’s penultimate track is “Madame Trudeaux”, and it’s a feminist wet-dream. She sings about her real-life subject – the wife of a bygone Canadian prime minister – who in an act of the most dramatic kind of female rebellion, left her husband and ran off with her lover on the eve of his re-election.

The track is the pinnacle of her personal rebellion too:

“Lead the way so others follow!” – she yells as she shrugs off patriarchy like a wet blanket.

Lyrically, musically, thematically she fights the confines placed upon her and praises the scarlet letter of the situation; taking full control of her faculties and proving undeniably that this entire album has been a love-letter to independence – the Gospel According to Freedom.

And then the last track comes around, and the singer-songwriter finds a hard-garnered peace. Sitting down into her chair, she makes no assertion beyond that of the actual, the physical and the human – that which is achievable within Aristotle’s uniform limits. “The Entertainer” tells us that she’s still grieving and that she needs time to heal, to grow, to reshape herself into the artist she wants to be. She’s not Joni or Carole yet, and she knows it. She hasn’t written her “Blue” or her “Tapestry”. But, she won’t stop trying and she’s going to stay herself in the process. She’s going to stay the syncopated, layered girl in 5/4 time that plays her guitar because she has to to stay on the road to self-realization.

Tiger Suit was a guided tour through her mind in a way that Drastic Fantastic really wasn’t.

Drastic Fantastic was a public persona, Tiger Suit was the real-deal.

 

Check back next week when this series discusses what I consider Tunstall’s best EP: The Scarlet Tulip EP.

And, right now, have a listen to “Uummannaq Song”, “Come On, Get In!” and “The Entertainer” below:

 

 

 

 

 

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