To approach this record head-on is to miss its subtle, timeless beauty. It must find you at the right moment, sidling into your consciousness as you fold laundry or rest in your favorite chair on a Sunday afternoon. It must float around with hidden design until your soul is ready to receive it. Only then will Brosseau’s voice, a wonderfully precise and delicate male falsetto, resonate to its fullest potential. Only then will his tales of North Dakota woe, sparing guitar work, and occasional harmonica flourishes really make sense. True beauty and fine art do not smack you across the head; they simply wait, patient and unchanging, for you to understand them.
What I Mean to Say is Goodbye is Tom Brosseau’s fifth album. His first came out less than five years ago and he is only 28, but he could be as old as the dust in his songs. Opener “West of Town” is the story of the flood that destroyed most of his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997. He’s not a mourner but a storyteller: “I have forgiven the big Red River for doin’ what she done.” If you love something, let it go. Perhaps to foster this intimate distance, Brosseau recorded What I Mean to Say in Topanga, California, near his new home of Los Angeles – 1,500 miles and a world away from the rural northeast corner of North Dakota.
Brosseau’s sad and sweet folk songs flow seamlessly from one to the next. There are no jarring moments; no pauses or break-ups or surprises. “Wear and Tear” is an up-tempo shuffle with a great harmonica solo. The traditional “In My Time of Dyin'” is turned from a spiritual into a ballad with no loss of spirit. “My Little Babe” finds Brosseau accompanied by piano instead of guitar. The songs are an articulation of fluid inspiration, composed and performed by a master craftsman – daytime lullabies, so sparse, spacious and slow.
In the last track, “Quiet Drink,” Brosseau yearns to be “far away from any noisemakers.” He draws as much as he can from each syllable, squeezing every last drop of meaning from his words. For those who have made it this far, the lesson becomes clear: Tom Brosseau’s music succeeds because it is simple and quiet, and can be more profound than silence.