Basia Bulat offers Good Advice with country ballads

Basia Bulat Good AdviceHowever many shades of scarlet you care to mark between them, there are essentially two kinds of break-up song. If you've ever heard Elvis Costello & The Attractions' 1986 marvel Blood & Chocolate, you'll know that the divine form of each can be found there: both the giddy, sarcastic glee of "I Hope You're Happy Now" and the devastating "I Want You". And while it's clear that Basia Bulat's Good Advice pitches for the former's optimism, there is more than enough doubt cast in the record's frailer moments to make this a complex, emotional affair.

Bulat's star has been on the ascendant since 2013's Tall Tall Shadow was nominated for both Polaris and Juno awards, and subsequent tours with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Destroyer have earned her a producer of Jim James' ilk this time round. The My Morning Jacket founder's alt-country presence is felt in opener "La La Lie", and provides a pleasant foil to the more staccato elements of Bulat's sound, centred around a relentless drum beat and organ stabs. "Long Goodbye" goes one step further, unfurling into a gloriously danceable 60s stomp, and you begin to feel that the 600-mile drive she made to record these songs in Kentucky really cleared out the cobwebs.

Forgetting is so long though, and melancholy arrives with "Time", "Good Advice", and the traditional door-as-heart metaphor of "Let Me In", but the slower tempos and reduced instrumentation somewhat dampen the spirit of this record. And what is the spirit of this record, in its finest moments? Simon Reynolds nailed it in his classic Morrissey interview: "Poignancy (and this is why its domain is the minor key) is the exquisite meshing of two contradictory feelings. It's a piercing beauty, or a sweet ache. Anyone who's ever treasured their pain... preferring the company of ghosts to the dreamlessness of everyday society - that person understands poignancy." It's here that we file the gorgeous gospel lament of "In the Name Of", where, in Jim James' own words, the listener can practically "[hear] her voice just exploding out of her soul." It's here that "Infamous" strides out, wearing the heart's weariness all down its sleeve, with the simple lyrical cincher: "Come back, or don't."

The magic of what Bulat has achieved with this record lies in her ability to tell a story across the length of the album, a major-to-minor narrative that irresistibly gathers the listener up and takes them with her, even through the quieter moments. She also reminds us that bittersweet can mean bringing light to the shade, as well as darkness to the joy. "The Garden" is quite simply one of the most beautiful songs you will hear this year, all ambient synth textures and soaring vocals, the sound of hope against all odds: "We won't look back. And if we don't, we won't be lost." And if we must, god, let it sound like this. Because you won't find any album working from a richer emotional palette this year.

Release: 12th February 2016, Secret City Records


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