[24 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Tom Brosseau’s last album, Cavalier, was an ending of sorts for him. The brilliant, but absolutely hollowed-out sound of that record—relying almost completely on Brosseau’s reedy vocals and faint guitar—took his folk sound down to its most spare. He couldn’t be any more direct, any more threadbare and hushed in his delivery.
So it’s nice to hear his new record Posthumous Success is a blossoming out of that sound, an expansion to something far more lush than anything he’s ever done. Fat Cat is touting it as his “biggest” record yet, but that’s not quite right. The album still succeeds on the fragility of Brosseau’s presence, his ability to lure you in with a honeyed whisper rather than hooking you with a shout. But these songs are probably the fullest we’ve heard from the singer-songwriter yet, dripping with layers of guitars, bolstered by drums, and delivered with a clear-eyed and infectious energy.
The album starts in familiar territory, with Brosseau and a guitar plucking through the blues-folk of “Favorite Colour Blue”. It’s stunning, even if we’ve heard this from him before, but he also hints at what’s to come. “My favorite color is the color blue / I put a little of that in everything I do,/ But I’m slowly changing my style”, he sings halfway through the track. And from there the album searches out new sounds, new twists on his distinct brand of folk, new territories he has yet to venture into on record.
“Been True” shows Brosseau’s basic folk tendency in the beginning, but then its get tangled in layers of stringy guitars and shuffling drums, giving it a much brighter, poppier sound. “Big Time” takes on swirling guitars and a driving rhythm section to paint Brosseau, for the first time, as a charming and able band leader. There’s a similar full-band feel on “New Heights”, as light keys sway through the chugging track. And, later in the record, the country thump of “Wishbone Medallion” sounds a lot like a refining of those other two songs, a full but clear sound adorned by simple instruments and female backing vocals.
In between all these shifts in sound, Brosseau experiments with instrumental tracks, each with its own distinct feel. There’s the beautiful ghostly humming of “Boothill”, the spare, echoed guitar of “Youth Decay”, the pastoral haze of “Miss Lucy”, and the lonesome, bluesy wandering of “Chandler”. Four instrumental tracks seems like a lot, especially for a crafty lyricist like Brosseau, but the gamble pays off. These songs feel like markers as Posthumous Success guides you through peaks and valleys of sound. As the album shifts from reverie to melancholy to aggression to love and back again, these haunting pieces both push the record forward and let you, the listener, get your bearings as sounds and moods take jarring shifts over the course of the record.
All of this—the full instrumentation, the new soundscapes, the instrumental pieces—makes Posthumous Success feel very spacious. Not big so much as carefully spread out. And Brosseau uses that space to deliver his most varied and interesting vocal performance yet. He can still keen, but he fills his voice out a little more on songs like “New Heights” and “Big Time”, so he never sounds fey on top of these beefier tracks. He also takes on a number of different attitudes and personas with his voice here. When he’s not the doe-eyed balladeer, he channels a Dylan-esque, acerbic swagger on “Drumroll”, and plays the squint-eyed cowboy perfectly on “Wishbone Medallion”. The only misstep on the record comes on “You Don’t Know My Friends”. The crumbling rock sound is the one experiment here that doesn’t quite suit Brosseau, and the antagonistic, defensive tone of his narrator can either be a little too crass to buy coming from him—“I’m still going to the dance, but I’m going stag / I don’t mind if any of you think I’m a fag”, he sings at one point—or his lines, confined by the claustrophobic track, sound stilted and flat. The tone especially fails because Brosseau works the sinister angle much better on the outstanding “Axe and Stump”.
In the end, Posthumous Success takes us back to where we came from, sort of. We end with a full-band version of “Favorite Colour Blue”. It’s the opposite of the opener in everyway. Big drums, spacey synths, soaring atmosphere. But it works just as well as the solo take. It turns out Tom Brosseau is as versatile a singer-songwriter as there is to be found out there. He doesn’t lose anything moving from the negative space of Cavalier to the lush palate of Posthumous Success. So, sure, maybe he sang himself into a corner with that last record, taking that sound as far as he could. But this record shows him busting out of that corner, with all his tuneful charm and the affecting intimacy of his songs intact.