Basia Bulat
Photo: Richmond Lam / Courtesy of Chromatic PR

Basia Bulat Cultivates Earthly Delights on ‘The Garden’

Basia Bulat digs into her back catalog on The Garden to cultivate a collection of earthly delights, all reimagined songs from her previous studio releases.

The Garden
Basia Bulat
Secret City Records
25 February 2022

Canadian singer and multi-instrumentalist Basia Bulat‘s new album The Garden is aptly titled. Bulat digs into her back catalog to cultivate a collection of earthly delights, all reimagined songs from her previous studio releases. The album’s 16 tracks are complemented by string arrangements from Owen Pallett, Paul Frith, and Zou Zou Robidoux. The result is a more manicured sound than overgrown while remaining lush and vibrant. Each song title is amended with “(The Garden Version)”, which elicits an association with Taylor Swift. The revisited songs on The Garden are unlikely to spawn a thousand memes, although I, for one, welcome a legion of self-styled “Bulatties”.

These kinds of projects are often laughably grandiloquent. The dubious notion that a classical reworking of a pop song elevates it to high art is exposed by the very arrangement thereof. Who can forget (try as they might) Alanis Morissette’s super-serious orchestral performance of “You Oughta Know” at the 1996 Grammy Awards? Bulat avoids this pitfall simply because her songs aren’t that poppy or pretentious to begin with. After all, she began her career by accompanying herself on the autoharp—hardly a fast track to the top of the pop charts.

Despite lending her song “Before I Knew” to a memorable Subaru commercial, Bulat remains relatively obscure in the US. She has received ample airplay in her native country, however, as well as many accolades. Her debut album, Oh My Darling, was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. Her third, Tall Tall Shadow, was also considered for the Polaris and was nominated for a Juno Award. Her 2020 LP, Are You in Love? received a nod for Adult Alternative Album of the Year at the 2021 Junos. 

Having only a passing familiarity with Bulat may work to the listener’s advantage for those outside Canada. With any re-recording, the tendency is to compare the new arrangements to the old, sizing them up against the originals. Some can’t help but fall short.

Some of the tracks on The Garden hew more closely to the previous versions, while others are entirely reinvented. Pallett’s arrangements, in particular, do far more than duplicate the song’s melody or chord changes. His seven tracks are textural and avant-garde, dipping into dissonance in places. Frith takes a more conservative approach; his arrangements sound more like traditional chamber ensemble pieces. Both arrangers add a richness that’s lacking on some of the originals. Cellist Robidoux’s orchestrations cast a baroque sensibility to her three songs, giving them an almost timeless quality. Most of these compositions could easily stand alone as instrumental tracks without Bulat’s vocal parts.

Bulat’s voice itself has a lachrymose quality, with a timbre and quaver that can make any lyric sound forlorn. On Good Advice, the songs were sorrowful, but producer Jim James (My Morning Jacket) bolstered the album with a full rock band. The result was a poppy collection of catchy breakup songs. The upbeat numbers on Good Advice recall early Motown records, the kind that gets your toes tapping before the song’s meaning catches up.   

Four of the tracks on The Garden are culled from Good Advice. In each, the new orchestral arrangements more closely match the lyrical sentiments. The strings on “In the Name Of”, for example, turn the tune from a maudlin torch song to a restrained but insistent lament. The instrumentation on the track “Good Advice” is an even more faithful reflection of the song’s text. The addition of backing vocals and mellotron in Frith’s arrangement bestows a gravity on the song that’s not present in the original recording.

On the title track, the hypnotic synth arpeggios of the original (from Good Advice) are replaced by Pallett’s strings, which recall early Philip Glass. Bulat’s vocal, higher in the mix on the original, intertwines with the string ensemble in a dynamic and fluid dance.

“Are You in Love?” from the album of the same name is one of the more pronounced transformations on the album. The original’s bombastic rendition would be at home on a Nicole Atkins record. On The Garden, the song becomes a heady baroque waltz, its pizzicato strings fitting for a stylized period drama. Bulat’s vocals are particularly strong here, demonstrating a range not often heard in her earlier releases.

Nothing written and recorded in the early 2020s can escape the conditions under which it was created. Scholars will be investigating the pandemic’s effects on art for years to come. The Garden reflects that shift. Bulat says, “This past year, I let myself slow down, dig in the dirt, take root, and look at what memories and melodies came springing back to me.” Just as a song’s meaning can change for a listener over the years, so too can they change for the songwriter. Few have the opportunity to update their compositions and commit them to recordings. In that regard, The Garden is a tiny silver lining for Bulat and fans alike.

Whether you prefer the orchestral versions of The Garden or the pop stylings of the originals is a matter of taste. Rather than pit the renditions against one another, they should be judged on their own merits. As with any garden, the endeavor requires patience, but the rewards are delectable.

RATING 8 / 10