KT Tunstall’s return to recording probably surprised no one more than her. The twelve years since her debut saw the Scottish artist move in a progressively experimental direction before finally swearing off recording two years ago. The multi-platinum selling artist then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a quiet career in film scoring. She’s returned, however, with a collection of eleven songs that feel every bit as pop-rock as her debut. Who would have thought?
KIN () marks her sixth full-length album, the spiritual successor to her 2004 debut Eye to the Telescope. Tunstall has rediscovered Eye‘s plucky swagger and embraced it fully. At its best, KIN recalls the confidence of earlier hits like “Suddenly I See,” a song that became ubiquitous, blared everywhere from TV shows to movies to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. The latest album marks a departure from the heavier, more experimental styles Tunstall has dabbled in over the last decade, and a pivot back towards the upbeat pop rock that launched her career. If previous albums were about Tunstall’s growth and journey as an artist, KIN intends to announce her realization as a fully mature singer and songwriter. The title of the nakedly autobiographical fifth track captures the album’s ethos best: “It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am.”
On “Everything Has Its Shape,” she sings, “Put it apart and put it back together how you want it.” With the release of KIN, Tunstall has heeded her own advice, breaking with the increasingly folky sound she had been moving towards for years. The album is full of defiant energy. “Evil Eye” and “Run on Home” are both upbeat, guitar-heavy hits featuring strong, full-throated vocals that recall the attitude of her early work. There is evidence of a more mature Tunstall, perhaps nowhere more so than on the slow and deeply atmospheric title track. Whether due to her intensive study of film-scoring, or the influence of producer Tony Hoffer, the album is highly polished and manages to remain enjoyable to listen to, even when the source material seems stale. The echoing vocals and subtle, electronic flourishes lend a depth and sheen to acoustic guitar-driven tracks like “Maybe It’s a Good Thing.”
Tunstall’s freshly rediscovered confidence hits its mark on some songs, but elsewhere feels forced. The opener, “Hard Girls,” has a catchy hook, but falls flat with its formulaic pop rhythm and buzzing synths and breakdowns, which feel slightly jarring, like an afterthought added in post production. “Two Way,” her duet with James Bay, suffers from similar problems, with instrumentals that feel hastily arranged, synths meshing awkwardly with guitar lines. Songwriting cliches, like her comparison of love with an ocean, weigh things down as well, and even the stronger tracks offer little that could be considered memorable. Thematically, Tunstall remains in safe territory. On “Turned a Light On,” she sings, “There was only blank space/Life lived in negative/I couldn’t find my color.” She seems to have found at least some of that color on KIN, but if the intention was to rediscover and showcase a more authentic version of herself, it doesn’t quite shine through.
Tunstall’s turn back towards her earlier style of pop music may have been a long time coming, but it still feels incomplete. There is something from her earlier work missing. Arguably, her best work has been when she allows herself to get experimental, intimate, and vulnerable. KIN is rarely any of these things, although there are enough glimmers of them to give us a sense of what might have been possible. Still, KIN is fun, listenable, and Tunstall’s personality shines throughout, her voice as strong as ever. Ultimately, the main weakness is that so much time is spent in safe territory. By keeping to a well-worn pop rock format, the album ends up feeling unremarkable. And KT Tunstall is capable of so much more.
KIN is available on iTunes and Spotify.
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