You had to be living under a rock in 2002 to avoid Vanessa Carlton’s breakout single “A Thousand Miles”, and if you were a young girl when it came out, it meant everything to you. There was something so raw and authentic about Carlton, even then when she was so young. She was a singer-songwriter who wrote honest, relatable songs about growing up and sex, and she played her own instrument – the piano. In the pre-Taylor Swift age of artificial pop stars, she stood out for her bold storytelling and deeply personal, journalistic writing that was empowering, rather than objectifying. And though she’s put out four full-length studio albums, it would be impossible to compare her fifth record Liberman to any of them.
Without discrediting her career thus far, Carlton’s Liberman is evidence of growth, maturity and finding her true voice, and rather than feeling like something she’s worked toward, it feels instead like a rebirth. Carlton’s life has been a whirlwind in the last few years. She married Deer Tick front man John McCauley, moved to Nashville, and had a baby girl, and there’s no doubt that these major changes have influenced her creative direction. Liberman is, without question, her most mature record ever. It’s polished, well produced, and cohesive.
Carlton has always been known for her golden voice, and with Liberman she has truly honed it. While still sweet, soft and angelic, her vocals also sound notably stronger and more seasoned, and she plays with them in enchanting ways. She sounds confident and collected, with polished and sophisticated harmonies that hit all the rights notes at the right times. Her songs are still full of catchy pop hooks, but they’re more subdued and controlled. The instrumentals are lush, but not melodramatic or overly orchestral, as with much of Carlton’s earlier stuff.
Opening track “Take it Easy” sums up the theme of Liberman: letting go. Not to mention, it also has runaway hit potential. Smooth, electro-folk-pop, this tune is existential and elevated, despite its main message of staying down to earth. “As your castle crumbles down/and it will/take it easy,” she sings, her vocals floating and wispy. Carlton has been through some shit, getting her start so young and going through the brutal motions of being owned and molded by major record labels, before finally reaching a breaking point. “I’m old enough to know/too young to let it go,” she sings.
“Willows” is a dark, piano-driven tune about finding light, getting your life together and getting back to basics. In it, she sounds earthy and grounded. And “Nothing Where Something Used to Be” is a painfully truthful break-up song that captures the urgency and uninhibited feelings of being confronted, after time has passed, by a lost love. She runs through the mindless drinking, self-doubt and self-discovery that ensue in the wake of heartbreak. “It’s confusing/‘cause I’m the one that left/It was preemptive/I don’t know who I am/Aren’t we all searching for something we don’t understand?/Someone else to see through our battle plan?” Though Liberman is a record of self-acceptance and looking forward, this song that dredges up a difficult past is crucial in that journey.
“Matter of Time” would be right at home on any Deer Tick record, a simple lullaby set to John McCauley-esque guitar. “When is it time to let go?/And is it then that you know?…We become what we become,” Carlton sings, gently. “Blue Pool”, “House of Seven Swords” and “Operator” are all ethereal and hypnotic, casting a spell. Much of Liberman has this dreamy, heavenly haze over it, and it suits all of Carlton’s strongest, most assured sensibilities as an artist.
Liberman is heart wrenching and honest, and proves Carlton has recalibrated and is hitting her stride as a grown woman. This record feels like a refined beginning of a new, very important chapter of her career. Carlton is not trying to be anyone but herself, and it is so refreshing.