Back in 2016, Basia Bulat’s fourth record Good Advice was a real breath of fresh air, representing a sprightly sonic shift in direction following the more generic acoustic folk of earlier releases. This perhaps revealed the fundamental role My Morning Jacket’s Jim James played as producer on this record. Basia Bulat no doubt identified this and has wisely secured James’ services for her fifth record Are You in Love?
Having said that, the direction has shifted once again. Any musician worth their salt will never rest on their laurels and context is everything and clearly this is applicable to Are You in Love? The record went into a nine month hiatus, in part due to the loss of her father, but during this time she also fell in love. “I want to make a really beautiful record about compassion,” she wrote to producer Jim James, but she also claimed that “throughout this whole record, I was struggling between keeping it together and letting go… between holding onto old narratives or accepting what’s before me.” The result is something timeless but with contemporary inflections that keep it fresh and unpredictable on the whole, and Bulat’s distinctive vocals keep it intently mellifluent throughout.
The opening title track is one of the more dramatic moments. Widescreen in scope, the song is the equivalent of a romance movie from the golden age of cinema; it’s a technicolour montage of canorous strings and gentle piano that are often lost amidst Bulat’s ardent vocals which eventually crack and fade at the song’s emotional conclusion, replaced by the sweeping acoustic intro of ‘Electric Roses’, which maintains the timeless formula with its broad string backdrop. ‘Your Girl’ breaks the mould to a degree. It’s a poppier approach, more upbeat in tone and clearly the natural single from the record. There is a Jenny Lewis vibe which emerges at this point but it quickly dissipates as ‘Light Years’ returns to the more tender balladry, made more distinct with some subtly avant-garde musical flourishes suggestive of Jim James’ role in the whole process. With this in mind, the mid-point of the album perhaps lacks the same inventiveness. It’s all easy on the ear, but perhaps a tad too saccharine, without the unpredictable flourishes that graced the earlier tunes.
The shimmering mirage of ‘I Believe it Now’ punctuates the record before the soul inflections of ‘No Control’ appear and once again, the personality of the record begins to return, the golden age replaced with a noir-esque quality. The songwriting is fluid and poetic throughout and ‘Already Forgiven’ is a particularly dreamy moment that evaporates in swirling, chimerical fashion.
There is perhaps an over-reliance on the tender acoustic intro as we head towards the record’s conclusion, and thankfully the album’s denouement keeps things unpredictable with its distorted electric guitar skirmish at the conclusion of ‘Love is at the End of the World’. It may be a subtle shift in direction and the record is perhaps a couple of songs too long, but it’s still good to have Basia Bulat back.