Album Review: Basia Bulat – The Garden

Basia Bulat Standing in a Garden
Basia Bulat, Petite Patrie, Montreal

The Breakdown

Basia Bulat has produced something that is beautiful and precious and engaging and it’s a joy to listen to from start to finish. ‘The Garden’ is a stunning new exposition of timeless songs, taken to a new plane of perspective and artistic insight and it’s truly wonderful. An album to be cherished.
Secret City Records 9.0

Canadian chanteuse Basia Bulat has revisited and reworked tracks from her previous five albums on latest release, ‘The Garden’. It’s out on Secret City Records on 25th February, initially only digitally but it will be followed up by a physical release on 25th March.

The 16 songs on ‘The Garden’ were produced by Bulat and Mark Lawson (Arcade Fire, Beirut) and have been given the full string quartet treatment by arrangers Owen Pallett, Paul Frith and Zou Zou Robidoux. It makes for a gorgeously lush album of already great tunes viewed from a new vantage point. Alongside bandmates Andrew Woods and Ben Whiteley on guitar and bass, the band is augmented with violinists John Corban and Tomo Newton, violist Jen Thiessen, harpist Sarah Page and Robidoux on cello.

The tempo and tone shifts between the originals and these reinterpretations on ‘The Garden’ make this almost like an album of new, original material. It’s more than a greatest hits; it’s a genuinely engaging and delicious reimagining, aided with the benefit of hindsight. It was a chance to record anew some songs that Bulat didn’t fully understand when she originally composed them. As Bulat says:

Storytelling is how we understand who we are and where we come from –  fables carry lessons from one generation to the next. But what do we do when part of the fable passed down to us is forgotten or mistaken? When we realize as adults that we may have been carrying on legacies that we didn’t intend or understand? Sometimes the stories we learned in childhood about ourselves and our homes are remnants from a past that cannot answer the questions we have in the present. We can’t change or save anyone with the stories we’ve carried with us, but they remind us to be bold enough to meet one another in the moment we have now with truth and love.

Bulat is no stranger to strings and has played live with small chamber ensembles and full orchestras, including the Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra and Symphony Nova Scotia. This is the first time, though, that she has used this instrumentation on one of her albums to this extent. It not only shines a new light on some timeless songwriting but also showcases her gorgeously luxurious and occasionally tremulous vocals which are more exposed on these productions – that’s a good thing by the way. 

Eponymous opener, The Garden, is a reworking of a song from 2016’s ‘Good Advice’ and the swirling string quartet is a wonderful accompaniment to Bulat’s warm and inviting vocals. Infamous, the original of which was also on ‘Good Advice’, is a slower, sparser version and sees Bulat more melancholic and forgiving on this version than the more prickly and urgent original. That’s not a bad thing and shows how perceptions can shift over time with experience and learning.

Heart of My Own first appeared on Bulat’s sophomore album of the same name. That version was a classic folk romp with banjo et al. The version on ‘The Garden’ has a livelier tempo but the orchestration gives it a slightly more foreboding sound. It’s amazing how the changes in tempo and instrumentation on these songs changes not just their texture and tone but also their emotional resonance and impact.

As with the original version, The Shore sees Bulat’s autoharp prominent in the mix. It’s such a gorgeous instrument and played so simply and effectively by Bulat. Sometimes, less is more. I Was A Daughter  first appeared on Bulat’s debut – 2007’s ‘Oh, My Darling’. The version on ‘The Garden’ is one of a number on the album which feels like a different tune entirely, with just memories of the original remaining. Gone are the tumbling beats to be replaced by sparse but beautiful strings. Bulat’s voice has also gained extra warmth and texture in the subsequent 15 years. You can hear it on The Pilgriming Wine – a maturity and experiential development. It’s a really fascinating experiment in a way, kind of like time travel, but mostly it’s a wonderful exposition of already wonderful songs, taken to – not so much a new level but – a new plane of perspective and artistic insight.

The impact of the reworking is much more stark on songs like Are You In Love? and Love Is At The End of the World from 2020’s ‘Are You in Love?’, which were much more classic female pop and synth experimentation in those versions than her earlier folky singer-songwriter stuff. The album continues to deliver exquisite versions of Bulat’s songs all the way through. There isn’t a single misstep and it’s the kind of album you put on and settle in to experience as it envelops you in it’s lusciousness.

Whilst ‘artist revisits and reworks back catalogue’ is a phrase that can often be seen as a synonym for ‘artist has lost their spark and run out of steam’, ‘The Garden’ is the opposite of that. If anything, it shows how much spark and steam Bulat has and it shows an artistic confidence in being able to reflect, challenge her own thinking and perception and repackage her art for where she is now. Bulat has produced something that is beautiful and precious and engaging and it’s a joy to listen to from start to finish.

Track List:

01 – The Garden
02 – Infamous
03 – Heart of My Own
04 – The Shore
05 – I Was a Daughter
06 – Go On
07 – Tall Tall Shadow
08 – The Pilgriming Vine
09 – Windflowers
10 – Fables
11 – Already Forgiven
12 – Love is at the End of the World
13 – Lupins
14 – In the Name Of
15 – Are You in Love?
16 – Good Advice

Basia Bulat Live Dates:

03/21 – London, UK @ Omeara

03/22 – Bristol, UK @ Rough Trade

03/24 – Glasgow, UK @ Broadcast

03/25 – Manchester, UK @ YES (The Basement)

Basia Bulat Online

 Website | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

Secret City Records Online

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