Vanessa Carlton has always had bars. Many fans know her best for those proto-Swiftian verses of the 2000s, or the scene from White Chicks where Terry Crews sings along to "A Thousand Miles," but the 39-year-old has been quietly thriving since going independent in 2011. More recent albums like Rabbits on the Run and Liberman saw her abandon a radio-friendly style for alt-pop in the realm of I Never Learn-era Lykke Li. Following the Sara Bareilles model, she also took her talents to Broadway this summer to star as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Carlton still writes about love in a way that cuts through the noise. Premiering today on PAPER from her new album Love Is An Art, "Future Pain" presents a distinctly thirty-something perspective on heartbreak. It's striking to witness the evolution from her teenage, lovestruck masochism (this is the woman who said she'd walk a thousand miles just to see you… tonight).
Over warm slow, buzzy synths, Carlton sings with love-weary dread about a familiar sensation: falling into love she knows will hurt. "There you are again/ sitting at the same spot at the bar." As the track opens up with drums and a velvety bassline, she paints a portrait of the particular kind of guy she can't believe she's falling for, again: "I'm staring down your sad sad eyes/ I know where this is going it won't be a surprise."
"This song is about repeating a pattern we know has the same unhappy ending and finding comfort in a pattern that is self-destructive," Carlton tells us. "Choosing dark over light. There is darkness in all of us. When and why do we let it win?"
It's not just the story that hits, but Carlton's self-awareness of her past naiveté. "Bad boys become sad boys," she sings in falsetto, her voice lovely as ever. "It's only cute when you're young." Like I said: bars.