There’s a famous Pablo Picasso quote to the effect of, “…Good artists borrow and great artists steal.” And while listening to, Bhi Bhiman’s newest album, Bhiman, this phrase kept creeping to the forefront of my mind. What did Picasso mean by that? And how does it change the way we reflect on new art?
While still a relatively new artist, Bhi has already drawn comparison to everyone from John Prine to Cat Stevens. Yes, I know those are two completely different musicians — barely comparable in their own right — but that gives you an idea of the broad range of comparisons he’s been shackled with. I use the term “shackled” because I rarely see these sorts of comparisons as accurate or fair, and usually they end up giving you a watered-down idea of the music.
Bhi’s songs are sometimes a little quirky and do have certain humor to them (which is where the John Prine comparison probably comes from), but besides the occasional accuracy in contrasting two artists, it’s just a lazy way to describe music.
I think there’s a ton of music out there that’s easily identifiable as derived, and sometimes it’s easy to connect the dots and see where the artist’s influences are rooted. So we then describe music as, “kind of sounding like this band,” or, “kind of like that, only harder,” and while maybe there’s nothing terrible about describing music via comparison, it’s certainly noteworthy that it’s a shortcut to using adjectives.
Sorry, getting a little off topic. The point being, there’s a difference between borrowing and stealing in music — and in all art.
What I take from the Picasso quote above is that it isn’t that difficult to mimic something you’ve seen or heard, but that it takes great skill and talent to understand the things that influence you and to use them to make something new. It takes an artist to really make the art their own and to do so thoughtfully.
For example, “Guttersnipe,” the first track on Bhi Bhiman’s new self-titled album, begins with a very familiar folk guitar sound. The rhythmic guitar strum is perfectly mirrored by the large presence of the percussion. And before the vocals have come in, you can already feel a familiarity with the song — you’re already being reminded of things. Does that mean Bhi is ripping something off, or does it mean he’s using your predisposed attachment to something to derive a certain feeling or image?
And then Bhi sings … and oh, does he sing.
He begins the first verse of the album, bellowing full and clear, “I jumped the first train I saw, it’ll surely take me home.” To me, a line like this echoes the humanity of every folk song and immediately I found myself taken there, taken to that place where your own notion of home, of both the presence and absence of it, washes over you. Whatever your understanding of home is, this likely brings it to mind. That feeling is part of why I love songwriting. And Bhi is an American songwriter. If you’re anything like me, this album has a lot of those shivers-sent-though-your-body moments.
Bhi has an incredible voice. To me it’s a voice that really doesn’t bring many comparisons to mind. There’s a unique quality to it, an absence of satire or sarcasm in his tone that’s refreshing and honest.
I’m not going to discuss every song on the album. And truthfully, I don’t love every song on the album. Some are more guitar-led alt/blues tunes, while others are funny little folk songs about work, life or love. They’re all worth a listen though. And for what it’s worth, I think Bhiman is a good album. It’s an album I paid for. And I believe Bhi Bhiman is headed toward being a very unique songwriter … maybe even a great artist.
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