Why Basia Bulat Should Win The Polaris Prize

Photo by Michael Vincent Tan
Photo by Michael Vincent Tan

by Chris Wheeler 

On the evening of the 21st of September, 2013, following an in-store performance at the smaller of Rough Trade’s two London locations, I found myself sitting on the stoop of a stereotypically British townhouse with my phone in hand, recording an interview with a Canadian musician who, at the end of a very long promotional tour for a new album and with friends waiting at a bar nearby, was kind enough to make time to speak with me.

The interview was with one Basia Bulat. The album, now familiar but which would not see release in Canada until over a week later on the 30th of September, was Tall Tall Shadow. Even at the time, even with only a handful of singles and promotional performances to go by and the freshly purchased but still unconsumed album in a bag at my feet, I understood that this album held unusual importance.

A year on, the excitement is still alive and well and has bred a new kind of anticipation. After being shortlisted for the 2014 Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year, Tall Tall Shadow has been shortlisted for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize. The third of Basia’s albums to make the Polaris long list and second to make the short list, Tall Tall Shadow represents Basia’s best chance at securing the top prize and $30,000. Not because it is her best album to date (it is) or because Basia’s performances and personality are so instantly enchanting (they are). No, Tall Tall Shadow will succeed where her other two albums have not because it soars over the competition.

Most of this year’s crop of albums strike me as deeply personal and reflective endeavours. Apart from Arcade Fire’s grandiose yet intentionally ambiguous Reflektor and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s sorrowed (almost) otherworldly din, the shortlisted albums all feel like emotive pen-to-paper impartances, almost without pretence (Drake’s excellent Nothing Was The Same being the exeption). The brightest, despite the inference in the title of the album, and most important is Bulat’s Tall Tall Shadow.

For an album that exists most obviously as a meditation on love, Tall Tall Shadow has remarkable depth and actually confounds that definition. On “Promise Not To Think About Love” Basia sings “And I’ve seen the final hour/ When I tell you I don’t think about love/ I don’t think about it/ And I won’t sing about it now/” Backed by a simple hand clap rhythm throughout, the song lifts and feels almost joyful, as if the darkest is behind. This sentiment of renewal and a search for meaning beyond the confines of love or a relationship is the arc that gives shape to the album.

“All I own/ I don’t want/ can’t be sold” from “Five, Four” and sung over a simple hand picked melody on the guitar that crescendos slightly at the line’s conclusion, reminds us the tangible is always less important than the intangible, that our happiness must be internal and not be misplaced in objects.

Tall Tall Shadow’s strength is that it is incredibly intimate without being overly gloomy. The album is warm even at its bleakest lyrical moments because they double as extremely valuable and indelible lessons that Basia imprints on our own consciousness. Her painfully wrought experiences are internalized as things we would do well to remember when we find ourselves overwhelmed by darkness. The detailing and emotion of her carefully chosen and exquisitely played instrumental arrangements compliment and come to represent both the pain and the spark of joy that immediately follows.

It is not with love that we find our place in our shadowy world. By knowing pain and learning to know ourselves we find true meaning. There is no other, ethereal or otherwise, there is only our own shadow to that we need to learn to live with and navigate around. Translating your own hardships into any medium can be an impossible task, but delivering them with poise and providing any modicum of relief to your audience is a gift. Tall Tall Shadow, instead of delving in them, shines a light so we can confront our own.

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