Conscious or not, Vanessa Carlton submerged herself in all things British for her fourth album, Rabbits on the Run. She recorded the album with Doves producer Steve Osborne at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England, and the songs were reportedly inspired by the writings of Stephen Hawking and Richard Adams, whose fantasy novel Watership Down is evoked in the album’s title. The influence of Hawking’s theories about the Big Bang and event horizons isn’t exactly apparent upon first listen, but many of the songs, largely written and recorded when Carlton was in the final throes of her Saturn return, reflect a certain existential anxiety and the letting go of childish things: the titular rabbits on the run in the album’s opening track, “Carousel,” represent life’s ephemerality; “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride” expresses the singer-songwriter’s fear of shattered illusions; waiting for saviors is deemed futile on “London”; and so on.
Following the commercial disappointment of Harmonium, Carlton played it safe on 2007’s Heroes & Thieves, which was, in retrospect, a transitional record. Now free of major-label pressures (Rabbits on the Run is her first album on indie label Razor & Tie), Carlton seems to have thrown caution to the proverbial wind, resulting in her most adventurous effort to date. “Carousel” employs sleigh bells, handclaps, and even a children’s choir, but it’s all done in surprisingly understated fashion, while the atmospheric rhythm arrangement on mood piece “Hear the Bells” recalls Pierre Marchand’s exquisite work on Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.
That’s not to say that Rabbits on the Run isn’t an accessible pop record. “Dear California” is reminiscent of Sheryl Crow’s mid-‘90s output, while “Tall Tales for Spring” is probably the album’s surest bet for a radio single, giving guitarist Ari Ingber and My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, who both play throughout the album, a chance to flex their stuff. Carlton’s piano is in perfect synergy with Ingber, Hallahan, and the song’s myriad string players.
Before Taylor Swift, Carlton was more studiously exploring the brutal, messy reality of adolscence on songs like “White Houses.” But aside from maybe “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride” (“I don’t want to wear white/Oh, you know it’s too late for that,” she admits ruefully during the track’s chorus), the songs here are decidedly less poignant and melodramatic, both lyrically and musically. An even more notable evolution, however, is the maturity of Carlton’s voice. Her timbre is still cute and girlish, but it’s far more restrained and controlled than in the past. There are hints of mentor Stevie Nicks’s delivery style in the meter of lines like “Never too late to change the pace,” and Carlton’s vocal performance on the modest but beautiful “Marching Line” reminds me of the Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson, but for the most part, she settles into her own comfy zone.
Rabbits on the Run isn’t quite Carlton’s Extraordinary Machine, but like Harmonium, it signals that she just might be capable of such a magnum opus. (And come to think of it, Jon Brion is probably the guy to help her do it.) And like on her accomplished sophomore effort, Carlton ends the album with its most devastating and experimental piece. Her voice is barely recognizable as she ruminates on the cyclical, metaphysical nature of life and death in ways that would make Stephen Hawking proud.