published: 5 /
Memorable and distinctive folk pop on first album in four years from Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat
It has been almost four years since Basia Bulat released her last album, 2016’s ‘Good Advice’. That record documented a break-up, but in the period since, she has fallen in love. She, however, also lost her father, and the combination of new love and grief proved overwhelming. Although work on her new record was underway, having journeyed to the Joshua Tree desert to write and record, she gave up and took a year off.
Instead of persevering, she waited until she was ready – returning to the album with renewed enthusiasm in 2019. It proved the right decision. “Oh why didn’t I just listen to myself in the first goddamn place?”, she said afterwards.
Yet, the troubles that caused recording to be temporarily abandoned are not evident in the end product.
Indeed, ‘Are You In Love?’ finds her renewing her productive partnership with producer Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). James also produced ‘Good Advice’, the first time Bulat had recorded outside Canada. That album saw her move away from the folky sound of her earlier albums. Having previously been known for playing an autoharp, Bulat expanded her palette by writing on various keyboards and organs.
So, while the last album was a reinvention, this album is a refinement of what came before. The sound is a gently updated take on the classic early '70s singer-songwriter sound – still built mainly around acoustic instruments, but with strings, keyboards and percussion used liberally to swell the songs.
The defining feature of the record is Bulat’s vocals. Unlike many singers with a folk background, she isn’t afraid to let go. Songs that might otherwise have been conventional folky pop are carried up to the next level. In both style and delivery, these are songs that could comfortably hold their own against those on the ‘golden oldies’ station that Basia Bulet’s mum had on permanently when she was growing up.
The first note you hear is Bulet’s voice, as the title track kicks off with a moody, arresting opening. This unfolds until it reaches a big, bold chorus. I was hooked as soon as I heard it. It ends with Bulet pushing her voice up to the highest note you hear on the record – and, though we are soon back in more conventional folk-pop territory as an acoustic guitar begins the next track – it’s an immediate sign that this isn’t an album that will be held back by an inability to reach for an extra note or push out of conventional dynamics.
That next track, ‘Electric Roses’, begins as an acoustic strum, but doesn’t stay that way for long – as layers of instruments are added before the song closes with an unexpected burst of twinkly piano. After that, we are transported into the bouncy pop of ‘Your Girl’, which is tailor made to soundtrack a ‘driving off into the sunset’ scene in any romantic comedy.
The melodies keep coming. Even on those songs that are slightly less immediate, there is usually something, be it an unusual bit of instrumentation or a daring vocal line, to keep the ears perked up. Take the otherwise standard rock ballad ‘No Control’, where the vocals suddenly soar off into the distance, and you’d swear that Corin Tucker had dropped in off Sleater-Kinney’s latest tour to cut the vocal.
As the album closes, a new direction is pointed at, as the record plays out with the jazz-pop crossover of ‘Love is at the End of the World’, a song that perhaps feels more poignant now (in the midst of a global lock-down) than it would have done when recorded. It’s a testament to how good this record is that it’s hidden away as the final track. It would have been the lead single for most bands.
It’s a fitting end to a record filled with memorable melodies and distinctive performances – overall, a real treat.
Are You in Love?
Hall of Mirrors
I Believe it Now
The Last Time
Love is at the End of the World