Tom Brosseau: What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye

Nate Seltenrich

These songs are grounded in the reality of life, reducing complex ideas to the simpler terms in which we process them.

Tom Brosseau

What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye

Label: Loveless
US Release Date: 2005-06-07
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Insound affiliate

To approach this record head-on is to miss its subtle, timeless beauty. It must find you at the right moment, sidling into your consciousness as you fold laundry or rest in your favorite chair on a Sunday afternoon. It must float around with hidden design until your soul is ready to receive it. Only then will Brosseau's voice, a wonderfully precise and delicate falsetto full of vibrato, resonate to its highest potential. Only then will his sparing guitar work, soulful harmonica flourishes, and tales of love and woe really make sense. True beauty does not smack you across the head; it simply waits, patient and unchanging, for you to understand it.

What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye is Tom Brosseau's fifth release. His first came out less than five years ago and he is only 28, but he could be as old as the dust in his songs. Opener "West of Town" is the story of the flood that destroyed most of his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997. He's not a mourner but a confessor: "I have forgiven the big Red River for doin' what she done". If you love something, let it go -- an idea perhaps borne of Brosseau's recent split with his fiancé. Fostering this distance, he recorded What I Mean to Say is Goodby in Topanga, California, near his new home of Los Angeles -- 1,500 miles and a world away from the rural northeast corner of North Dakota.

Brosseau's sad and sweet folk songs flow seamlessly. There are no jarring moments, no pauses or break-ups or surprises. "Wear and Tear" is an up-tempo shuffle with two rousing harmonica solos. The traditional "In My Time of Dyin'" is turned from a spiritual to a ballad with no loss of spirit. "My Little Babe" finds Brosseau accompanied by piano instead of guitar, and hauntingly intimate: "In the lovely sunlight / I hold her in my arms / So tender is the gaze". These songs are an articulation of fluid inspiration, composed and performed by a master craftsman -- daytime lullabies, so sparse, spacious, and slow.

Across What I Meant to Say, Brosseau's musical reference points are two-fold. First, his forerunners and inspirations: Woodie Guthrie, Nick Drake, Billie Holiday, and Jeff Buckley. For these American storytellers, the voice was everything, and so it is for Brosseau. But he is also tied to a contemporary trend in indie rock -- lo-fi musicians like Elliott Smith, Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), and Bill Callahan (Smog) have helped bring quiet music back to the edge. Brosseau's dovetailing on this development may be coincidental, but he's more than likely to benefit from and even contribute to it.

Marking his distance from indie rock's self-sufficient and detached attitude, Brosseau is a folk singer in the purest sense. His songs have something to say; his lyrics are grounded in the reality of life, reducing complex ideas to the simpler terms in which we process them. In "Tonight I'm Careful With You", he honors every fine detail: "Between the sound your shoes make / And my pocket change / I don't think this evening has anything to say". His use of complete sentences signals a shift in thinking, away from cryptic fragments and toward intact thoughts. Brosseau writes not only songs, but also prose -- a piece called "Every City Has a Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd." is packaged with the record sleeve.

What I Meant to Say Is Goodbye's final track, "Quiet Drink", finds Brosseau yearning to be "far away from any noisemakers". He draws as much as he can from each syllable, squeezing every last drop of consequence from his gentle words. For those who have made it this far, the lesson becomes clear: Tom Brosseau's music succeeds because it is simple and quiet, and can be more profound than silence.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.