Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bon Iver vs the World

This is my review after a few listens of the new Bon Iver album last night - I'm hoping time will change my mind. It's up and down on youtube at the moment so be quick to catch it.

So, a day after the new Bon Iver song is released, the full album has leaked and Justin, I think we have a problem. Did you ever have a favourite shirt that had a stain on it that just ruined it? That’s how I feel about this album because on first listen I was really enjoying it until the final track when the heavens unleashed a torrent of clusterfuck. The final track, Beth/Rest, re-frames everything that came before it and makes the album considerably worse. (Katie has already discussed this track extensively here.)

How so? Well, in my review of Calgary, I mentioned that atmospheric indie tracks occasionally come off sounding like low-fi recreations of In the air tonight. Yes, I mean Phil Collins. Beth/Rest takes those 80’s idioms that made Phil a super star and revels in them, flaunts them and beats you with them. Richard Marx airy keyboards? Why not! 80’s flange guitar? Sure thing! Phil Collins vocal melodies? Bring it! Is that a frickin' clarinet solo? Fuck yeah! This is all undertaken with no irony and it is multiple shades of awful - it is diabolically bad. Seriously, it sounds like track 8 on the St Elmo’s Fire Soundtrack.

How this ruins the rest of the album is that once you listen back to the earlier tracks, you start to hear those influences on every track. Those multi layered vocals that Bon Iver revels in suddenly start to sound like Peter Cetera. Who? Watch the full glory of the Glory of Love here! (UPDATE: Even Rolling Stone agrees with me on the Cetera thing). Wirey guitar lines that seemed understated now sound like they’re from the best Hall and Oates track you never heard. Everything sounds different and to be honest, much worse.

If I can put it another way: this is an M. Knight Shyamalan-like album. However, instead of finding out that the lame twist ending is that it’s the planet killing people or the village is in the modern day, you find out the record is a love letter to the worst 80’s pop music you ever heard. You couldn’t really hear it on first listen but now you know the ending, you can’t hear anything else.

Now that I’ve done my hysterical-hyperbolic overreaction to that song, I can say that if you can get past these elements, there is some joy to be found here. The low key meditation of Wash. is peculiarly beautiful and when slide guitars shimmer towards the end of the track, it elevates into something special. I think Holocene is probably the strongest track here, just because it belies it’s environment and aches in a way that only Bon Iver at their best can. Minnesota, WI, with its unexpected use of horns, works just because it shouldn’t.

My favourite Bon Iver song is Brackett, W9 off the Dark Was The Night compilation. It is a song that has the full band sound as opposed to For Emma, Forever Ago solo vibe and I was looking forward to the new album to see how the band sound would play out. For me, it didn’t work and Beth/Rest has placed the album into a context that makes it hard to listen to. I imagine this record will receive knee-jerk universal critical acclaim (go on, Pitchfork, give it 8.3) but listen to that song and tell me if you can take it seriously. This is an album I wanted to love but I’m sorry Justin, I think you need to get back to his cabin and take a good long hard look at yourself.



  1. Friggin awesome post JH. Justin had a good run with the cabin the first time but then so did the Unabomber.

    Glory of Love. You nailed it. And everything else that is wrong with the album.

    x K

  2. You nailed it on the head mate. I heard "Beth/Rest" for the first time the other day and thought... damn, how strange it is to hear cheesy 80's pop on the radio? I thought it was kenny G playing sax, and was shocked to find out it actually was Bon Iver. WTF

  3. ok - I have boldly sailed across this album, and not come aground on the Collins angle. I don't think of the Beth track is a reef of crusted 80s coral, I think it a mere underwater feature on an otherwise varied and interesting seabed. OK - end nautical metaphors.

    To wit: I find the track harmonious with the whole (allbeit odd in plan/attack). I feel I should prose this up a bit further - and I will in time. I think it's not an error of judgement, but a deliberate, homely choice. As Katy Holmes, Literary Critic would say, artists make choices. These keys, these guitar lines, and that whacking drum were chosen. There is intent in it, and not a disastrous error, methinks.

    Has your 'hysterical-hyperbolic' reaction mellowed down with time & relistens or does the whole Collins collapse still hold?


  4. Rino, are you going to make me listen to this again? Alright, I'll give it another go soon and let you know. I accept that there is a choice being made here (as was a similar choice on the last Iron and Wine record) but I can't say I agree with it. I will give it another go when I can face up to it...

  5. Shockingly, many music-loving friends seem to be falling under the spell of this album. Rino, Ads... Sam bought it on vinyl so I've heard it a bunch of times now. Holocene (sp?) is a very pretty and nostalgic standout on an otherwise pleasant but purposeless album. IMHO.
    When I say purposeless, I am mainly talking about the lyrics. They don't seem to mean anything - it's like Justin is just enjoying making sounds with that lovely voice. I think Reens is right when he says there was definitely 'intent' in terms of its musical influences. But even that isn't very strong. Try as I might I cannot recall a tune from the album. Not that every song needs to have a hook but at least make some kind of impression. It's all a bit wishy washy.
    I just re-read your review, JH, and think you M Knight Shyamalan analogy is wonderful. I should have complimented you on this a year ago.
    I'm not sure your life will gain anything by revisiting this album. My advice is don't drink the koolaide.


  6. So I went back and gave it a try this morning and you know what, listening to perth, the first track I thought maybe it’s not as bad as I remember (that song is great) but then the Kenny G vibe comes in on Minnesota, WI and you lost me. As Katie mentioned, Holocene is probably the strongest thing here but fuck me, this album just reeks of everything bad about music to me. The influences are both obvious and subtle but when I say subtle, I mean that track that sounds like Bruce fucking Hornsby. No wonder it won a Grammy, it probably took the voters back to that warm safe place called the 80’s where the record company was king and mainstream music was blissfully inoffensive and easy to understand – none of that hip hop rubbish, just a bunch of non-threatening people singing about their feelings and shit. I don’t say this to be contrary, I really cannot hear anything astounding or memorable on this record and feel it strays into the musical territory I actively try to escape. I think his voice works in the folk context of For Emma (and is incredibly moving) but on this record it just sounds listless. Sorry lads, I will make a mild concession on my stance and say it isn’t as bad as I remember but really, why would I want to spend my time listening to this? It says nothing to me and that’s ok, it probably wasn’t meant for me to enjoy so different strokes blah blah blah... I could go on about revisionism and all that stuff but really, listen to Skinny Love off For Emma and then compare it to any track on the last record – that’s probably why I’m most upset, such a promising artist peddling middle of the road schlock.

  7. Or this from “Towers”:

    For the love, comes the burning young
    From the liver, sweating through your tongue
    Well, you're standing on my sternum don't you climb down darling
    Oh the sermons are the first to rest
    Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed
    Out the hollows where the swallow nests.

    To me these are personal scrapbookings. I suspect they’re more related to memories and local-specific associations than to lyric truths that must out. You can find more speculation on the latter song here:

    From my initial listens and cursory checks, there’s no clear sense of what these songs are about. But the album does seem to navigate a direction or focus on intimacy and homeliness, some inner terrain or past. A raftered melancholy? A sound of place perhaps. And yes, the album does sound fantastic on a gray prolonged Sunday morning drive*. It’s a good wintry album**.

    “Calgary” (track #8) is a strong point – even if it is heavy on keys and overdubs. This track would also work acoustic-only, I think. But again, as with “Perth” – what structure is he following here? I haven’t pulled out the guitar and applied myself to finding out – but the structure sounds purely musical rather than chord chord chord familiar. Which is a good thing; it makes for interesting.

    “Beth/Rest” (track #10) – yes, perhaps an unfortunate choice in keys as they dial up 80s frequencies. Or maybe this track is a personal reference, a reverential tuning into 80s youth or past subjectives. Sonically, it doesn’t sound out of place at all – the same mix colours, even down to the steel guitar. I know a few similar/ballpark tracks to this, with flutes and keys and lead guitar fills; and I was put in mind of Peter Tosh’s “Fools Die” ( in particular, strangely; which is also an album closer. Also, my version of the album ends with a different mix of “Calgary”, so the 80s episode isn’t the closer, which might be why it sounds aggravating or deliberately daft to some.

    I wouldn’t say every track is a winner, but each has at least some interesting detail or sonic figure to mark it. Justin Vernon is a very musical, atypical songwriter. And the mix: the mix feels correct and nuanced to me. I agree or I can hear all the issues people have with the album, but to me it feels right and carefully balanced and well sequenced and emotionally valid, over and above those concerns. Or at least, that’s the view from my particular node of subjective resonance.

    * Note: I’m not someone who believes all albums sound better in cars or on road trips.
    ** Boom boom.

  8. oh crap - had to split up comments - got order wrong!

  9. OK then.

    Bear in mind: this is the first Bon Iver album I’ve heard in full. I’ve given one or two Emma tracks a listen (especially “Flume”), but no further. So I’d known about the falsetto style, without building up too much expectation of follow-up consistency (and/or disappointment) with the difficult second album. Usually I get bugged by whole albums sung in falsetto, but not here. And I’ve got the gist that Emma is acoustic to Bon Iver’s electric-eclectic. But also, I’m not setting out to defend it per se; nor am I gunning a personal view in the swampy relativism of subjective resonance. What I hear is what I hear.

    “Perth” was the first track I’d cued up and didn’t process the rest for a good while. I remember the odd structure of the song: unstandard. With a nice guitar refrain, the horns etc. See an earlier note about electric guitars and song structure in the post-rock vein (detail: Mogwai: How difficult it can be to come up with interesting song formats using electric guitar chords & sounds, the usual familiar structures. “Perth” is a leftfield piece of interesting. At the time I thought: better than the usual Pitchfork hay.

    I do think the album deserves an award for its mix. The overlaid vocals, yes; but also the sonic detail and colour, the rounded sense of depth. Banjos and steel guitar, fuzzed low guitar on track #2. The bee-buzz of saxes on “Holocene” (track #2). The tremolo piano on “Hinnom (track #6). And reverse echo effects on “Wash” (track #7). Yet it’s a very gentle holistic mix.

    The album’s sound is its strongest suit methinks; and also its consistency to that sound-frame. I can hear how much work went into it (especially vocal overdubs and mixing), the collaborations etc, but to me it doesn’t sound encumbered or overcrowded. Not every richly-worked and -elaborated album garners automatic respect in a listener. I still hear the work of careful choices being made.

    But did you notice there’s no bass on the album? Well – baritone guitar here and there, but not the usual trio arrangement of guitars drums bass. Notice how the songs don’t really need standard old bass. But the mix is what makes me want to get this on CD so I can hear it in full stereo. I’m a big believer in the power of the mix.

    There aren’t many radio-friendly melodies here; nor is it a glorified solo album. It’s a different beast.

    It definitely feels like a meaningful album, of a kind. I had a realisation (listening in the car, in rainy slow traffic) that a songwriter’s job is to marry feeling to music. Or to work some magic so the feel causes the structure to melt away (feel over chords). Now, many if not all of the lyrics on Bon Iver don’t seem to stick or penetrate, but I can’t say they lack feeling or vibe. I don’t mind the lyric floatiness; I’m not expecting “Dylanesque” depth on this. That said, playing in the car, the words become falsetto sounds and melodies – except for the phrase “shoulder blades” (from “Calgary”) which sticks out at an odd angle. We now call it the ‘shoulder blade song’.

    That said, I haven’t read the lyrics too closely. I suspect they’re a marriage of creative writing exercises to song-feels. Let’s take some random snips; this from “Holocene”:

    Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.
    Above my brother, I and tangled spines.
    We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be.
    Now to know it my memory.

  10. I need a minute to digest this...

  11. Correction: when I said 'no bass' above I meant the four-stringed variety, usually in the hands of some grooving nodding hipster. There is bass on the album, either synth or FXd baritone guitar. Thanks. carry on.

  12. also, thanks for the link plug to my blog!

    Am loving this album on disc - I stand by my Mix Award comment 100%. John Leckie and Dan Lanois would both be happy with the mix/sound methinks.

    Also, discussing emotional music with nonsensical lyrics with the wife, she mentioned Sigur Ros. And I thought - this album could've been sung in Hopelandic and it'd still be good.

    On the wiki page it mentions how he writes the music and vocal melody first, and then puts in words later, picking for sound and loose fit. Think The Eno uses this method as well.

    Which means Justin will likely make a very good Producer.