Review: Vanessa Carlton Reaches Dreamy Balance On ‘Love Is An Art’
It was three full years ago when we first heard “Love Is An Art,” the title track from Vanessa Carlton’s newest album. But stretching back even farther than that live performance, another song on the album – “Patience” – was first previewed back in 2012. Indeed, Love Is An Art is the culmination of years of ideas and work, and that care truly shows. It’s an album that feels lived in, confident, down to earth… and a little bit dreamy or other-worldly. It’s also Vanessa’s first album to finally bridge the gap between her two musical lives.
Some may say that Vanessa Carlton’s music can be categorized into two phases. Phase 1 includes her first three albums – Be Not Nobody, Harmonium, and Heroes & Thieves – and represents a body of music that is polished and sweet. The songs are melodic and piano-based, but they still capture hints of Vanessa’s hazy, earthy vibes. But there was a big switch between albums #3 and #4, in the transition into her second phase. Vanessa’s 2010s music was softer, quieter, moodier. On both Rabbits On The Run and Liberman, Vanessa delved deeper into her dreamscape sounds, and opted for more minimalist production. Her music turned inward and took more sonic inspiration from decades past.
But now, with her new album Love Is An Art, Vanessa Carlton seems to have entered a third phase, one that combines the former two perfectly. The songs here are serene and wiser than ever. They’re filled out with textured, organic instrumentation and Vanessa’s swirling piano. But in some places, the album offers up bigger climaxes and richer production than we’ve heard in the past decade. At times this can feel beautifully nostalgic, but we can also hear the growth in both the musicality and the lyrics.
Love Is An Art is marriage of both worlds, one in which Vanessa’s past phases can coexist and form a cohesive whole instead of feeling entirely separate from each other. And yet it also feels like new territory, unburdened by earlier music and expectations. Indeed, the album also gifts listeners with some surprises: the pointedness of “Die, Dinosaur,” the explosive ending of “Miner’s Canary.” Vanessa wrote the album’s songs with singer-songwriter Tristen; the two met after becoming neighbors in Nashville.
We’re living in strange times now, and Love Is An Art is exactly the kind of album that will get us through them. It’s unusual and hypnotic with dashes of magic, and Love Is An Art solidifies Vanessa’s lasting place in music.
Track by Track
“I Can’t Stay The Same” – Love Is An Art starts with a love song to the person you see in the mirror each day. “I Can’t Stay The Same” fades in on a high, chiming sound as drums lazily come into focus. Vanessa’s vocals come in next, sounding grainy and far away. This leads to a full and strange chorus, synths and sliding notes making chaos behind Vanessa’s calm titular affirmation. The second verse returns to her distorted vocals, only coming up for air for a single line. The highlight here is the bridge, lush layers of vocals shining against subtle acoustic guitar. The song ends with Vanessa’s observation that “We begin again, again, again.”
“Companion Star” – Vanessa can be heard counting us into the second track. “Companion Star” builds on a muted keyboard and innocent vocals, sounding like a childish hymn from long ago. Vanessa’s vocals cascade down at the end of each verse, leading to magical choruses of delayed, echoing vocals. On the bridge, Vanessa harmonizes her upper and lower registers. In an interview a few months ago, Vanessa described “Companion Star” as focusing on relationships that last forever.
“I Know You Don’t Mean It” – Vanessa debuted “I Know You Don’t Mean It” during a live performance in January, and that live rendition nearly matches the studio recording. The song opens with echoing guitar, Vanessa singing sparsely over the top. As the song moves into the pre-chorus, Vanessa adds in her distinctive piano accompaniment. The chorus is the sweetest and most melodic we’ve heard from her yet, highlighting her high vocals. Drums come in on the second chorus, grounding the song further. On the bridge, filtered vocals lend a spooky tone, but it leads to a magical climax. Cascading piano and the addition of violin sweeten the sound even more, making this a dynamic and rich highlight on the album.
“Die, Dinosaur” – Vanessa previewed “Die, Dinosaur” earlier this week, revealing that it’s directed at “Trump and his brood” and is “dedicated to the Parkland Students and Ronan Farrow.” Indeed, during an interview with Blueberry Hill a few months ago, Vanessa explained that “Die, Dinosaur” was written after the shootings in Parkland, Florida and is about “the children who fill the world with love and grace while politicians fill their pockets.” The song starts with Vanessa singing over a shrieking synth and a winding keyboard. Those keys and a marching drumbeat form the backdrop for the verses, while Vanessa’s vocals echo over the top. The chorus takes us to a time long ago, mixing in earthy tones and a whistling synth melody. We get a deliciously haunting bridge before a final chorus, the song ending with an ominous exclamation of “Die!”
“Love Is An Art” – It was three years ago when Vanessa first performed “Love Is An Art” and announced it was the title track for her upcoming album. The studio version mostly matches that original performance, but it adds in new textures as well. The song is slow and moving, ambience building up with the sparse lyrics. On the first verse, Vanessa wants to know her new love interest’s past and be able to cut him free from it. Then we get to the chorus, low piano chords and high vocals offset by a spacey blip synth. Later, the sound of rain adds to the second verse’s mood. It’s an atmospheric ballad with a powerful message of connection.
“Future Pain” – Our first official taste of Love Is An Art came with “Future Pain,” released as the lead single last November. It has an immediate start, Vanessa crooning gently over fuzzy synths and shuffling percussion. She paints a scene of a man at a bar, succumbing to his same bad habits. But Vanessa’s romance with him is ill-fated, and she knows it. On the chorus, she sings, “I’ve got nothing to lose and nothing to gain but future pain,” bass giving extra weight to her words. “Future Pain” picks up on the second verse, reaching a peak with a bridge that says “bad boys become sad boys; it’s only cute when you’re young.” A false end just over two minutes into the song gives way to an explosive ending, sweetly reminiscent of Vanessa’s pre-indie music. It’s the fullest sound we’ve heard from Vanessa in over a decade, showing how the two halves of her career can fit together.
“Back To Life” – Track #7 starts with Vanessa saying “okay” before launching right into the song. Piano and vocals follow the same melody, moving lower from each line’s beginning to end. It sounds like a dark lullaby, and the chorus only verifies this as Vanessa sings, “Pendulum above my body swings; know that I’m a living, breathing thing.” The bridge exalts the song, ghostly vocals fading in over piano and violins. “Back To Life” is a dark and eerie song, and one that’ll be worth revisiting.
“Patience” – It was a stunning 8 years ago when Vanessa first uploaded “Patience” to SoundCloud. This new recording isn’t too different from that 2012 preview. It starts with dancing piano as Vanessa’s directions to “Wait for it” echo back and forth from left to right. The feeling is magical and light, and somehow reminiscent of Vanessa’s earlier music. “Patience” is only a minute long, and soon enough, low, crashing piano chords lead us to a static-y end, fading right into the next song.
“The Only Way To Love” – The second single from Love Is An Art was “The Only Way To Love,” released in January. It starts instantly, Vanessa’s echoing voice crooning softly over buzzing guitar. For some fans, it may immediately sound familiar. Indeed, Vanessa shared a clip of the song a while back before we even knew what it was. Drums come in on the pre-chorus, foreshadowing what’s coming next. The chorus amplifies into a bigger sound, pounding drums strengthening Vanessa’s message. As with some other tracks on the album, “The Only Way To Love” offers that big punch we haven’t heard much since Heroes & Thieves. It sounds different now – more acoustic and introspective, like her last two records – but still powerful.
“Salesman” – Earlier this week, Vanessa previewed and performed “Salesman” for her fans. The song opens with guitar and soft keyboard chords, accompanying lyrics about a prison made of gold. But then a baby comes into the picture, and she tries to conceal the bad things from her child. The pre-chorus builds up, strong and judging as Vanessa’s vocals echo in the distance. It leads to a rapid chorus, frantic synths flying over layers of acoustic guitar, drums, and heartbreaking lyrics. Vanessa sings, “Handsome salesman sold you heaven. Now you wait for it to fall.” Later we get a stormy bridge with high vocals before a final chorus and outro close it out.
“Miner’s Canary” – Love Is An Art ends with the third single we heard from it. “Miner’s Canary” opens with fluttering violins, an overture before the swirling piano comes in. The music will lull you into a false calmness, almost dreamy, but Vanessa’s sharp breaths grow tension with each passing second. She describes a toxic relationship, one in which only she will get hurt. It all screeches together before the last chorus – enriched with the addition of horns – before a shocking, final crash ends the song. “Miner’s Canary” is impactful and stunning, and you’ll certainly replay the song several times to fully absorb its effect. It’s an unexpected yet brilliant way to end the album.
Love Is An Art Score: 4/5
Highlights on Love Is An Art include: “I Know You Don’t Mean It,” “Future Pain,” “The Only Way To Love,” “Salesman,” and “Miner’s Canary.”
You can stream or buy Love Is An Art at all the major music providers here.