Good Advice (Secret City Records)
To be told on Basia Bulat’s own website that Good Advice rises from the ashes of a decaying relationship is no surprise: Her albums thus far (2007’s Oh, My Darling; 2010’s Heart of My Own, 2013’s Tall, Tall Shadow) bare the burdens of these emotions without ever being as melodramatic as our reigning pop confessionista. Bulat, though, does what any reasonable artist ought to do, which is provide her listener the experience of heartbreak without ever having to express directly the nature of her heartbreak.
In the opening track, “La La Lie,” we get one of the classic tropes of a relationship falling apart, an inability to look the other person in the eye. However, there is an interesting pairing of that inability with the singer’s denial, even referring to another trope, this time from action movies—the person being shot and not knowing it: “Don’t look down/Try to not see that you’re bleeding.” The denial in these lines, the hope of overcoming the obvious pain is such a factor in relationships ending, often something taken for granted. But here, Bulat captures it ever so gently, placing it in just such a way Schklovsky might say is “enstranged.” But we know it already.
Denial, though, bleeds interestingly into the album’s title track, addressing the classic conundrum of the friend who knows a relationship has gone bad but the singer isn’t ready to hear it. What can one do? It’s an acknowledgement of these issues without an ability to deal with them, something which I imagine most of us have experienced. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” is a common question following the end of a relationship. Here, she hears the advice but cannot make the leap into action.
Bulat shows her maturation as a songwriter on Good Advice through her self-awareness. In a sense, this maturation has been the progression of her albums, lyrically at least, towards an understanding through her relationships of herself, of her place not only in the field of music but the field of being. An understanding of self, of course, is not unique to songwriters or artists (no need to make geniuses out of people), but Bulat seems interested in exploring these ideas as she ages and moves forward with her work. In “Infamous,” there’s an understanding of how in the the post-relationship world, the new version of the relationship is always strange, always two lives splitting in different directions. In the chorus she sings, “Come back or not but call it off/Come back or don’t but turn me down,” signaling a kind of knowing that something has to be defined, its boundaries set so everyone can move on; this is a kind of maturity. There is a movement away from the denial expressed in “La La Lie” about the relationship’s ending; in “Infamous” there is an acknowledgement at long last that the emotions and other interactions after a relationship has ended are not easy and are made more difficult when there are no lines drawn.
During a radio interview in 1975, Bob Dylan said he could not understand people enjoying the pain expressed on his monumental Blood on the Tracks, and for Bulat, the lesson is learned; the experience is to be empathized with, not to provide the central enjoyment of the work. Where Blood on the Tracks is stripped down, with its open tunings and similar chord structures that allow the lyrics prominence over the rest of the artifice, Good Advice is a balance between the joyful sounds of music and the painful experiences. Bulat is not asking us to enjoy her pain or relish in it. She is asking us to explore our own, to listen to the songs not as catharsis but as action, and through that, to enjoy her songs, her voice, and lyrics. Good Advice is the phantom arm on the cover, gently brushing aside hair, providing comfort while also remaining detached from the exact experience, the exact pain. Look at the hand on the cover: it is an older hand, an experienced one. It is an empathetic hand.
The music is dynamic, continuing to move away from the folk-revival sound of Heart of My Own and Oh, My Darling, which featured a number of instruments you might equate with the genre. Good Advice (and its precursor Tall, Tall Shadow) bring in more diverse, more timely instruments, not attempting to emulate an aural aesthetic but rather forge their own. Bulat, of course, plays many of the instruments herself, but you can hear her tending towards keyboarded instruments, including synthesizers. There’s no desire to draw lines about what instruments belong, just the desire to use whatever works in this space. While Tall, Tall Shadow did function as a sort of call back to ’60s and ’70s blue-eyed soul, Good Advice isn’t reaching back anymore. The sound is newer, more modern, and ultimately leads to what might be the most innovative leap forward on the album, Bulat’s lyrics.
In a time where perpetuation (grow up, get a job, get married, have kids, die) seemed the main goal, these songs would have been out of place. There is an effort here, on Bulat’s part, to understand how modern relationships work. To meet the dynamic sound of the album, there is a dynamic view of life; being is an experience and not an automatic series of biological gestures. As life has grown more complex, as lines which previously existed are blurring rapidly, so are the lines of what constitutes a modern relationship. In “Infamous,” Bulat seeks to understand that relationships either must be salvaged or accepted as unsalvageable. The desire to work on the relationship is not gone but there is an acceptance that it might not work out, something we have attempted to understand on a cultural level in the last few decades. While her lyrics have always attempted the profound (mostly in a successful way, at least on her two most recent albums), the lyrics here add a layer of hyper-awareness, not only of the relationship she is distilling but also of the time in which the relationship took place.
This isn’t just the breakdown of a relationship. It is a view inward, an understanding, and an evaluation of self occurring when “situations have all been bad,” to quote Dylan from “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Here is where Good Advice lines up with other great breakup albums (I already mentioned Dylan, but I should mention Beck’s Sea Change as well): Bulat isn’t merely interested in telling a story; she is hoping to seek your empathy, to ask you to consider for yourself your own life, your own being. Like Blood on the Tracks is reflective of the introspective ’70s and offers a micro-example of a relationship in crisis, Bulat’s lyrics ask us to examine our own experience, to evaluate it and understand it. As she wrote in her previous album’s title track, “The shadow is yours.”
However, there’s no moping here, no feeling sorry for one’s self while a relationship crumbles away. There is an acceptance of it being time to move on, a time to reflect on what the next stage—next relationship— might be. A catalog of wants in the new relationship while attempting to self-evaluate how one has acted. There’s no drama here, just desire for a sympathetic ear. There is no bitterness, even in “Fool,” where she asks if she will continue to get, in the parlance of our times, “played,” a sign that perhaps the object of these songs knew something before the singer did. “Now that we all know the punchline / Only you know if I am” (your fool).
What I don’t understand is why Bulat has not garnered a larger audience in America as she has in her native Canada. I mean, we are inundated with talented people, no doubt, and we all form our little insular public audiences, but what is it about Bulat or her work thus far that has kept her relatively obscure on the American side of the border? While Heart of My Own fit perfectly into the Brooklyn-y folk-revival scene of the late 2000s/early 2010s, her first album veered too close to preciousness with its ukuleles and flighty vocals. We all make cliché moves in our early work, but Bulat in her third, and especially her fourth, outing has become innovative, has moved into her own, developing not only her voice but all the elements of her songwriting.
On Good Advice, we have a singer and songwriter in perfect balance between all forces and compulsions. She is writing her own experience and leaving a trail for us, not to follow, but to understand before we forge our own. This is what good art can do for its audience—not form the basis of tradition but help us to understand how we can form our own.