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.