Every kid who grew up on 2000s pop music will probably recognize the opening chords of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” one of the most popular piano anthems of 2002. With sugary vocals, lyrics about teenage heartbreak and a surprisingly killer string arrangement, the song planted Carlton in the midst of Avril Lavigne and Ashanti — for “Complicated” and “Foolish,” respectively — in Billboard’s top 100 songs of the year.
Though the other single from her debut album, “Be Not Nobody” (2002), achieved moderate success as well, Carlton’s subsequent releases peaked low in the charts and nearly fell into oblivion in the music world. Unfortunately, this means that “A Thousand Miles” will haunt Carlton forever, and most critics of her latest album, “Liberman,” released Oct. 23, will undoubtedly bring up comparisons to it in their reviews.
In an interview with CBS News, Carlton revealed that she had “learned a lot over the years, but mostly that you don’t know anything.” Thus, her goal with “Liberman” was not to relive the pop stardom of her early 20s, but to create an album that served as an “escape,” which she constructs as a dreamy, synth-filled venture into previously explored territory. While it’s certainly unfair to hold Carlton to a style of music that she wrote over a decade ago, this stylistic shift fails to make “Liberman” an inspiring record.
Even though her debut album did not feature incredibly original songwriting either, it made up for this with passion and sincerity. In certain moments, you could hear a subtle grittiness in her voice and notice the heartfelt emotion behind her lyrics. These moments, along with the bounding energy of songs like “Ordinary Day,” made “Be Not Nobody” a solid pop record. In “Liberman,” on the other hand, Carlton’s voice drips lethargy, and the instrumental arrangements sometimes rest on clichés that rarely hold the listener’s attention. While it’s commendable that Carlton has grown up to experiment with different styles, this musical maturity sucks out some of the soul from her songs.
The swooping crescendo that starts album opener “Take it Easy” dies out almost immediately, giving way to a conventional electronic beat and Carlton’s light coos. Though a driving drum sound bubbles underneath the surface, it is never fully realized, contributing to the song’s repetitive nature. It’s remarkable that the track goes on for five-and-a-half minutes with little variation. Poorly placed at the beginning of the album, the song loses momentum before it’s even fully built up.
The second track, “Willows,” shows a little more promise, with a dynamic intro of piano and guitar arpeggios with a traditional folk tilt. Every instance of this riff is stimulating, breathing life into the underwhelming album. Furthermore, the layers of guitars and well-timed percussive entries make for an interesting backdrop. However, Carlton’s voice enters with a bored affect, relying on the instrumental merits of the track to carry it along. The next track, “House of Seven Swords,” follows suit with boring vocal lines and slowly churned-out piano chords.
“Operator” is one of the best tracks on the album, adding some much-needed bite. With startling severity, Carlton spits such lyrics as “You should call your little brother / Tell him to be good / Tell him that you really love him / You don’t…but you should.” Interwoven sections change the vibe of the song from dark electro-pop to elegiac folk fantasy and back with seamless ease. Carlton’s earlier aspiration to write film scores is apparent in this track, as well as on following ones like “Blue Pools” and “River.” Creating picturesque interludes certainly seems to be a forte of hers, and the technique is often the album’s saving grace.
Nevertheless, many of the songs toward the end of the album, aside from the aforementioned “Blue Pools,” meld into one another, unable to stick in the listener’s memory. Though some of them have moments of striking musicality, it’s hard to get over Carlton’s flimsy vocals and the lulling instrumentals. The big, classic chords of the coda, “Ascension,” serve as a last hurrah, but the track is the shortest on the album. It’s certainly dreamy, as Carlton intended, but it is also a unique, odd number to close out the record given its lack of structure. This makes it an interesting listen, as the buried vocals and intermittent sound effects bring intrigue.
“Liberman” clearly has its moments, drawing in folk and film-score influences to round out an otherwise unexciting album. However, the listless vocals and repetitive music make it mediocre at best. Some critics may laud Carlton for stretching herself beyond her piano-pop roots, but her endeavor comes across less as a truly successful exploration and m0re as a merely unexpected attempt.