Music

Basia Bulat Asks 'Are You in Love?'

Photo: Richmond Lam / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Are You In Love? continues Basia Bulat's work with Jim James with equally excellent results but a slightly different theme about love in general.

Are You in Love?
Basia Bulat

Secret City

27 March 2020

Basia Bulat has put on a dayglo outfit. Back in 2007, when her debut album Oh, My Darling first came out, it'd be hard to picture her in anything quite that bright. She seemed to be more earth tone than neon. That debut and her subsequent two releases, Heart of My Own and Tall Tall Shadow, all had a similar sound based on organic instrumentation, all with a homemade feel and equally simple production. The beats were a little square -- more Mumford and Sons stomping a bass drum and less Al Jackson Jr. in Memphis in the mid-1960s laying a groove so deep you could sleep in it.

These early albums by Bulat have quality, of course, as Bulat is a talented songwriter as well as an extraordinarily interesting vocalist. Her fourth full length, 2016's Good Advice, was a new thing for her, though. Bulat enlisted Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame as a producer and began to show a little more of her soul and pop influences. The tones were brighter, and the grooves bounced a little more. It's a great album. Her new album, Are You in Love?, continues this approach with equally excellent results but with a slightly different theme.

Hit shuffle on Bulat's discography, and you're more likely to hear an autoharp or finger-picked guitar than a keyboard or electric guitar, and that's because of her first three albums. Bulat has a wild, beautiful voice that has seemingly endless possibilities that work well in such a stripped-down context. Take "It Can't Be You" off her third album Tall Tall Shadow, for example. It lives on a Sufjan-esque finger-picked guitar line that allows her voice room to open up, and the "Whoo's" and "Whoa's" she belts are all the evidence you need of her effective vocal theatrics. It's a common approach for her first period. Let the voice stand out.

Starting with Good Advice and continuing with Are You in Love?, Bulat's voice becomes more a part of the mix instead of the focal point. The ride itself is worth it, though, as these vehicles are astonishingly powerful and full of supreme performances from all angles. The tones are lively. Also, the production is inventive, with nearly every song having an unexpected twist or turn. More, the rhythm section is stunningly solid throughout the album.

"Homesick" is a song that starts with just an acoustic guitar and a voice, but slowly the rhythm section sneaks in for a note or two here and there until out of nowhere they all come bursting in full bore, with the bass rumbling and fuzzy like a garage band with nothing more than a 10-inch speaker and a borrowed Big Muff. It's a blissful moment, but it's not alone, as Are You in Love? is full of inventive song structures and surprising production flourishes.

So, Good Advice and Are You in Love? are similar sonically, but a little different thematically. Whereas, Good Advice was a straight-up break-up record, spewing vitriol at a past lover, Are You in Love? is more about love in general: the good, the bad, the romantic, the platonic, the familial, the abstract. The closing track is called "Love Is at the End of the World". "You fall apart when you fall into it. Love is at the end of the world," Bulat tells us. "Find me at the end of the world," she says a little later. It seems like she already knows the answer to the question she is asking.

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