I remember the year “A Thousand Miles” came out. I was 11 and soon realized that I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the radio hit. I also remember being thankful that for once, something of substance, something I liked, was inescapable. It rightfully stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for nearly a year and became one of the biggest songs of Summer 2002.
None of the four tracks on Blue Pool will be the song of Summer 2015. Vanessa Carlton’s days of topping pop radio charts are long gone. That’s not an insult. That’s praise.
While her contemporaries have either tried desperately to hang on to the autotuned genre that launched them to stardom as teenagers (Britney, Christina) or have faded into near obscurity (whatever happened to Mandy Moore?), Carlton, whose abundance of unique, raw talent was evident from the start, stood by quietly developing her voice and style into something meaningful and authentic.
As the years passed, she proved she was more artist than pop star, drawing in smaller, but still significant crowds by writing personal pieces about growing up and figuring yourself out (“White Houses”), discovering your newfound adult independence (“Nolita Fairytale”), betrayal (“Fairweather Friend”), and starting over (“Carousel”).
Sonically, Blue Pool, which contains two hazy, subtlely electronic studio takes and two intimate, live living room sessions, may strike some as new and out of left field. But if you follow her work from 2002’s Be Not Nobody to 2011’s Rabbits on the Run, the way she morphs from commercial pop to dreamscape-y singer songwriter, it feels like a natural progression.
This is how an artist’s work is supposed to evolve. The Vanessa we first met 13 years ago is still there. The majority of her songs are still piano driven, still focused on love, relationships, and the tension of working out your internal identity. But she’s matured with the passing of time, just like the teens and tweens who first fell in love with her voice as she played a moving piano on MTV.
The influence of mentor Stevie Nicks is evident, though it remains just that: influence. Her lyrics have become less trite (“Just a boy, just an ordinary boy”), more introspective, reflective, and substantial (“Are we all searching for something we don’t understand? Someone else to see through our battle plans?”). Her music is a little more haunted and moody, with references to Shamanism, owls, and graveyards. But it feels organic. There’s nothing copycat about it. If anything, Nicks only gave her a gentle nudge on her journey of self-discovery.
Blue Pool is not a great departure from Carlton’s recent body of work. Now 34, she’s moved to Nashville, gotten married, had a baby — but she’s not done questioning things. She still sings about subjects that strike an empathetic nerve with listeners. She’s reminiscing about young love (“Nothing Where Something Used to Be”), reconnecting with old friends and ruminating over the could have beens and might have beens (“Blue Pool”), and daring others to take chances (“Operator”).
“I’m old enough to know, too young to let it go,” she sings in “Take It Easy.” There’s the Vanessa we are all familiar with. She’s grown up, but is far from a grown up.
Expect Carlton’s fifth full-length album, Liberman, which will contain all EP tracks, this October.