Bon Iver: ‘Bon Iver’

Few artists have achieved the type of glowing recognition in such a short period of time as has Justin Vernon over the past three years.  By now, his back story is well-known: fronted DeYarmond Edison with members of Megafaun in North Carolina, became disenchanted with life there, left the band, moved back to Wisconsin, and drowned his sorrows in isolation, recording For Emma, Forever Ago as a sort of catharsis.  That album blew up, Justin went on tour, opened for some big names, and sold a lot of records.

Before too long, Vernon found himself in Hawaii cutting tracks and offering advice as part of Kanye West’s inner circle.  Not bad for an awkwardly bearded shy guy who just a short time before could scarcely pay his rent.  And unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve been inundated with advance press and publicity concerning Bon Iver’s anticipated follow-up album, the rather cloyingly titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver.  And judging from the reception, it seems as though Vernon has scored another big hit as adjectives like “transcendent”, “breathtaking”, and “majestic” have been frequently used to brandish the genius of this new release.  A string of sold-out venues and high-profile appearances on late-night talk shows also serve to indicate the importance and relevance of this release.  As is often the case, though, with positivity there is at times a single voice of dissent lurking among the revelers.  Such is the case with this review.

I’ll admit I enjoyed For Emma, Forever Ago.  I dug the DIY-woodsman type vibe that Vernon presented.  I liked the concept of finding oneself amongst nature and admired Vernon’s willingness to just say “Fuck it.  I’ve had enough, I’m camping out for a while.”  Plus, I’ve always thought that sad music is cool and have long had an affinity for bummer jams.  However, his music is not something that one can just put on and enjoy.  It demands not only strict attention but a particular mood, namely one of despair, in order to reflect upon and appreciate.  Sure, those periods happen, but it’s hard to make time for some “Skinny Love” or “Re: Stacks” when day-to-day life is so hectic.  So, For Emma kind of fell a bit off the radar in my music consumption cycle and was reserved for certain occasions of solitude or unwinding.  I was hoping the second proper full-length would a bit to the sound and vibe and perhaps trump the prior recordings.

With the success he’s enjoyed, Vernon was able to bring in his touring band and other assembled musicians into the studio for this follow-up. The result is a fuller, lusher sound that accentuates the sentiments while adding a cinematic quality to the songs. The problem lies in the focus. Whereas previously Vernon had the concept of love gone wrong to guide him through the album, here he tends to simply ramble nonsensically while a swirl of sounds envelopes the lyrics around him.  And there is really not much of value sung by Vernon.  He has gone from vulnerable declarations of heartbreak like “I crouch like a crow/Contrasting like snow/For the agony I’d rather know” to preposterously laughable lines of meter: “ramble in the roots, had the marvel, moved the proof be kneeled fine’s glowing/storing up the clues, it had it’s sullen blue bruised through by showing.”  There is value in putting words together in a mishmash of arrangements and disorder (see Jeff Tweedy, Iggy Pop, hell even Dylan) but the line between creative discovery and pretension is easily crossed and Vernon errs towards the latter in this case.  It’s as if he is trying to win the mythical award for “Best Use of Alliteration in Indie Rock”.

Complicating matters further is Vernon’s choice of song titles, the majority of which are named after cities and towns if not given esoteric names like “Beth/Rest” or “Holocene”.  It is a bit of an elitist trick, like the English Lit. graduate student who sneaks obscure literary terms into his daily conversation.  Additionally, as fans of his side project Gayngs will know, Vernon has fallen in love with Auto-Tune and uses it to extreme lengths throughout the album.  With Gayngs it was an interesting and somewhat novel approach, here it just seems like a good idea gone too far.  Since there is little profundity in the lyrics there is not much being missed, but it is nevertheless rather annoying to continually hear a muddy falsetto high up in the mix song after song.  On the first album, Vernon’s singing voice suited the lonely acoustic strums just fine.  Here, it just adds to the over-the-top grandeur of the production: high on the show, low on the payoff.

There are signs of promise on the album: the stately acoustic and pedal steel intro of “Holocene”, the affirmative, driving piano notes that anchor “Wash.”, and the brief moments of crescendo that top off “Calgary”, but more often than not those moments fade into an interminable swirl of melancholy, and the type that isn’t fun to participate with.  And don’t even ask about the Bette Midler, Phil Collins-esque album closing “Beth/Rest”.  The less said about that, the better.  As a listener, you wish for something to shake the doldrums that the continuous tempos dictate.  Instead, the album passes by with nary a change in mood or effect, which is a shame since there seemed to be so much promise to fulfill.  But, as mentioned earlier, Vernon seems like a man who can do no wrong and the positive air swelling around this album is sure to propel his star even further in the music landscape.

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