In Brief: How can a songwriter blend such an experimental hodgepodge of sounds and still come up with such a beautiful album? It’s as much a mystery as Bon Iver’s fragmented lyrics.
Bon Iver is one of those indie acts that I’d been reading about and hearing about for while before I decided to check them out – without even realizing that I was reading and hearing about the same act, or that it wasn’t a “them” at all – just one guy, a guitar, and some ingenuity with a makeshift recording setup. Pronunciation led to the first blunder – you read the name and you’re tempted to say something that rhymes with “MacGyver”, only to find out it’s actually sorta French – “Bone Ee-VARE.” But I really had no excuse for the second one, given that I’ve been following Iron & Wine for years and I always knew what the deal was with that one-man act. As it turns out, finally digging into the music made by Wisconsin native Justin Vernon under this psuedo-French moniker reminds me a great deal of Iron & Wine. It’s not just due to Vernon’s ability to whisk me away to pastoral or forested places mostly not appearing on large-scale maps of the country – it’s in his seeming restlessness with going the simple folks music route. 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago may sound on paper like a humble beginning similar to I&W’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, but that record already showed some surprising complexity for a dude holed up in his cabin with rudimentary equipment. Still, the double-eponymous Bon Iver, Bon Iver takes a decided jog even further left of center, in some ways mirroring the metamorphosis I&W went through over two or three albums. Vernon’s deep, husky vocals that so easily slip into falsetto are another similar asset, but it plays out in a different way, like this guy could have hooked up with one of those sound alike nu-grunge bands about ten years ago, but thankfully escaped such a horrid fate. We’re all better off hearing him this way… trust me.
A quick trip through the 10 tracks on Bon Iver, Bon Iver brings back a flood of memories from the first time I fell in love with a diverse group of artists. Sufjan Stevens is an obvious one – scatter the place names all across a map of America and Canada, and maybe even throw in a few that merely sound like they could be real places, and it’s easy to picture how Sufjan’s influence could beget the new Bon Iver sound, but with a lot more brevity and no long-winded, excitable song titles. The quieter moments on Michigan are the ones I’m thinking of here. When those deep vocals collide with falsetto as Vernon double-tracks his own backing vocals, particularly when this happens against groovier percussion than you’d expect on a “folk” record, I think TV on the Radio, with even a side of Dave Matthews Band when a saxophone shows up. Elsewhere, the songs take surprisingly electric or even synthetic turns, assuring that any comparison I think to make fails to describe the majority of the album. Despite being so all over the place, this disc has a consistent mellow tone to it that flows well throughout, with the layers of sound occasionally bursting into action, but the music mostly proving appropriate for a reflective walk through the woods at sunset (or, to be more realistic for this city boy, a wee morning hours wiki-walk while planning a vacation to somewhere much greener).
It was easy to find myself chiming in with the multitude of critics lavishing praise on Bon Iver’s sophomore disc, but repeated listens have revealed one glaring flaw – namely, that much of it seems a bit immaterial. You know that feeling you get when you’ve experienced something pretty, but thinking back on it later, you’re fuzzy on the details? Yeah, that’s sort of what this album is like. Undoubtedly a lot of the lyrics were inspired by personal experience, frayed friendships, long weary travels and the like, but maybe it’s Vernon’s habit of slurring the words or maybe it’s just the oblique lyrics – either way, it’s sometimes hard to connect intellectually to whatever these songs are about. There’s also a bit of mid-album lull where things get rather minimalistic, with a few simple tones or chords providing the bulk of the backing track as Vernon sings sleepily. I’ll be fair – this is a folk artist intentionally blurring the lines of his chosen genre, and not the work of rock band, so it’d be silly to expect anything that I don’t expect from I&W or Sufjan (both of whom, to be fair, have lost me on occasion by not knowing when to pare back a song or an album that runs a tad too long). So please understand that these complaints are relatively minor, and I appreciate the overall mood and setting even when I feel like a few of these tracks might keep an already short album from remaining in “genius” territory long enough to deserve the full five stars. It’s still a solid piece of work, one that I know I’ll keep coming back to on days when I need a good chill pill, and that I’ll hopefully keep finding hidden nuggets in as I listen more intently with headphones. Those who prefer to approach their music in a similar manner will probably get the most out of Bon Iver.
For me, the opening track is Bon Iver’s most stunning song. It crawls in quietly, with Vernon’s repeated arpeggio and the delicate wash of background vocals feeling very intimate even though the guitar is most definitely plugged in. A militant drum cadence stops and starts in the background, and as the main riff repeats, the song builds in intensity, leaping out of the speakers quite beautifully at the chorus (which guarantees you’ll be caught off guard if you’ve turned up your volume to hear the opening strains). It’s noteworthy that the song feels so action-packed despite having such a repetitive melody and chord progression – that’s partly due to Vernon’s lead vocal melody changing things up as his delivery gets more passionate and reaches into falsetto territory, but mostly due to the loud shards of electric guitar and thick drum rolls that come crashing in during the song’s climax. It’s just the right balance of indie rock edginess (the guitars scrape and squeal on occasion) and baroque pop grandeur (check out those horns!), and it’s only after falling in love with the song due to repeated listening that I realize the lyrics are mere fragments, which feel absolutely cathartic despite not making much sense on the page: “Iʼm tearing up, acrost your face/Move dust through the light/To fide your name, it’s something fane/This is not a place/Not yet awake, I’m raised of make.” And that addictive chorus? Simply the words “Still alive, who you love” again and again. This should really bug me, but for some strange reason, it doesn’t.
2. Minnesota, WI
The quiet segue between songs is just sublime enough that you might not realize the track has changed a bit, until a swampy groove begins to settle in that is reminiscent of some of Iron & Wine’s experiments during live shows. The low baritone vocals are unexpected, though – to the point where I could have sworn at first that it wasn’t the same guy singing the low parts and the high parts. What fascinates be about this song is that is keeps morphing, becoming a veritable stew of influences too numerours to name. One minute you’re focused on the funky groove, the next on the lap steel and synth floating about in the background, and then on the lush finger-picking of acoustic guitar and banjo that comes flooding to the foreground, like a gentle rain trickling through the cracks of a mossy rock wall. Did I mention the sax? Listen to this one track and you can probably figure out why I named musical touchstones as far-flung from the expected indie folk stylings of Bon Iver’s first album as TV on the Radio. It’s all there in the fuzzed-out low-end, and in the dynamic vocal range. And because you have a saxophone and banjo colliding, well, that explains the DMB reference I made earlier. The chorus of “Never gonna break, never gonna break” is intoxicating, even if, once again, it’s the only part of the song that makes a lick of sense to me.
The album’s longest song is probably one of its more conventional numbers, floating in calmly on the angelic finger-picking of an acoustic guitar and the sleepy drawl of a lap steel. Vernon’s voice is at its most breathy and dreamy here, which means it comes as quite a shock when he drops one of the album’s two profanities midway through the first verse: “You f*cked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street/You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet.” One gets the distinct feeling of sadness and disappointment listening to this song, and the delivery is the perfect mixture of sweetness and sorrow. The chorus’s declaration of “At once I knew I was not magnificent” carries a great weight, but it’s just as easily lifted with the more peaceful observation “I can see for miles, miles, miles”. Indeed, the music brings to mind a forested vista, a place one visits to escape the letdown of everyday life, where creation itself puts all problems in perspective. Once again, the recording is superbly layered, with the drums slowly creeping in and coming to a steady, rolling boil, and the vague buzz of horns and vibraphones adding a sort of golden glow to the proceedings. Just three tracks in, and I’m already certain that I’m in love.
The tempo picks up a bit here, with the electric guitar, mostly clean in its tone, settling into more of a jangly strum pattern, but the percussion patiently waiting its turn, not breaking in until the bridge. A lot of indie artists would probably prefer to leave the guitar raw, but it seems like it’s part of Bon Iver’s DNA to pile things up subtly in the background, so there’s a pedal steel and fiddle lingering about, threatening to turn this into country song, but when the melody dips into minor key at the bridge and the floodgates open, it becomes decidedly more baroque, loud, celebratory. That’s where the other profanity comes in, for folks who care about that sort of thing – the line is “F*ck the firecest fables”, which actually brings to mind a love of alliteration that runs throughout the song. Just trying reciting most of these lines quickly without stumbling over yourself at some point: “Smoke on Sundays when youʼre drunk and dressed/Out the hollows where the swallow nests.” Meaning seems as if it’s less important than the sound of those syllables rolling across the tongue.
This song plays like a slow dance – a waltz, in fact. At the beginning it’s a hushed, intimate one, with Justin’s double-tracked vocals and the electric guitar picking out gentle notes. The motion picks up, at first in the form of vague clunky background sounds that sort of keep the beat, and other oddball sounds like the bell from a bicycle. It’s definitely one of Bon Iver’s more ambient pieces, relying just as much on ambiance and found sounds as it does on rhythm, particularly in the breaks between the verses. The lyrics, poetic as they are, seem to intentionally obscure the story of a childhood misadventure that either led to great discovery, great pain, or both. The mood is as airy as any number of quiet, majestic epics that Sufjan Stevens has turned out, but compacted into the space of less than four minutes. Horns blurt about and the background noise grows more intense, but this never leads to a climax per se, just the sense of waiting around after each pristinely delivered verse for a refrain that never shows up. It’s pretty, but I do find myself forgetting what “happens” during the song.
6. Hinnom, TX
One of Bon Iver’s most bizarrely experimental pieces is up next, opening the second half of the record with stuttering waves of sound as echoing piano chords are drawn out, giving an otherwise slow and solemn piece its own odd personality, especially as it’s punctuated occasionally by little spurts of horns or other odd sounds that rise up out of the background. It’s more of a tone poem than a fully realized song, but I get that it’s meant to be that. For what it is, the experiment is reasonably interesting, with Vernon’s low vocals seemingly tracked separately from the falsetto, one playing off of the other, creating a sort of hall of mirrors where you’re tricked into thinking there’s at least two of everything. The lyrical fragments, where you can make them out from the slurred and overlapped words, are fairly open-ended – I want to construct a narrative of a sleepy town bypassed by some newly built Interstate out of them, but I can’t get much farther than vague impressions.
The album’s “sleepy midesction” hits its third movement here, with a fairly uncluttered piano piece that repeats the same two delicate chords, almost as if the melody is caught in an invisible whirlpool in the air, being blown back and forth but never really getting anywhere. That’s not a criticism of the song, necessarily, as it has its own way of building up a quiet storm of strings and pedal steel. There’s a peaceful stillness to the song that still leaves room for experimentalism, as heard in the echoing background vocals that occasionally break off into little snippets and crumble apart. The overall feeling is sort of like throwing a small pebble into a lake and watching the ripples. Reading the lyrics makes me want to grab Justin by the shoulders and tell him to stop verbing his nouns (“Climb is all we know when thaw is not below us”? Yikes), but I guess that’s just how his stream of consciousness works. Even the way that the song is titled is a hint at how you’re supposed to look at it, as if to say the full name “Washington” wouldn’t fit, so you’re looking at a place on the map from so far away that only a few mere letters fit within those boundaries, and you can only get a vague overview of the place it describes. Yet it’s still intriguing enough that you want to go there for yourself, experience its bigness from the ground up, get acquainted with it one trail and one tree at a time.
You wouldn’t know it from the opening verse, which is all rounded-off synth chords and airy falsetto vocals, but this one’s actually a bit of a wake-up call late in the album. By that I mean to say, it actually has some sort of percussive rhythm to it and manages to build up some steam, and in doing so, break up what would otherwise be a continuous lull from track 5 through to the end. Again, that’s not a criticism of the mellower songs – just a note that we could use a change of pace at this point. This one’s more subtle than the more sonically striking tracks at the beginning of the record, but it fits in well with its surroundings, slowly growing in intensity and becoming a fully electric, mid-tempo rock number, with some rather spacey synthesizers chiming in at times. The mood is vaguely psychedelic, but Vernon’s sweet crooning also reminds me of some of Coldplay‘s prettier passages, without sounding at all like the myriad of bands out there who actually seek to emulate Coldplay intentionally. (Imagine X&Y, but more exploratory and without bludgeoning you over the head with cliches. That sort of describes this.) The lyrics play a bit like a message of regret, expressed over someone special who’s been lost – it could be a lover, or it could be a mother for all I know, given the lyrics about being laid down to sleep and about the details of a familiar body that cradled him. (I mean the neck and cheekbones and stuff – get your mind out of the gutter.) Yet the final verse, which dips back into calm territory before the percussion cuts out completely and the song stops cold – throws a monkey wrench into my assumptions about the gender of the person he’s singing to: “Wake up to your starboard bride/Who goes in and then stays inside/Oh the demons come, they can subside.” I’m sufficiently confused, but that is one heck of an intriguing line to end on.
9. Lisbon, OH
I brought up the phrase “tone poem” earlier, but this is probably the track that’s best described using those terms – a mere minute and a half of lingering, slowly shifting synth and guitar tones, with some computerized bleeps and blurps to add flavor, as if a melody’s trying to form itself, but can’t. It’s really more of an intro to the final song than a piece unto itself, so it feels a lot like some of the interludes on Sufjan Stevens’ albums (or heck, even some the outros to his longer songs). It’s essentially filler. I’d be fine with it if it were one of 15 or 20 tracks, but I will admit that I feel slightly ripped off upon realizing we’ve only got nine actual songs on this record.
WHAT. THE. DEVIL. As decidedly dated keyboard sounds and a drum machine that sounds like it came from one of that keyboard’s demo programs come drifting in, I’m convinced that this must be a joke, some sort of self-aware parody delivered with a wink and a nudge. But nope, there’s no intentional humor present – Vernon is playing a decidedly dated style completely straight, quite possibly proving that he can wring genuine emotion out of a vintage pop style so widely ridiculed that probably even Kenny G. wouldn’t use it any more. Bringing up the G seems appropriate here, since twin saxophones float throughout the song, putting it about two uncomfortable steps away from being a corny love song from the soundtrack to some 80’s flick about a girl whose man died and now he’s in heaven looking down on her or some crap like that. (Or any number of Christian radio hits of the early 90’s. Take your pick.) As if that wasn’t enough, he’s using auto-tune. Everything that could possibly make his fans and his critics go, “Yuck”. To be honest, this is ballsy, because when it’s mixed with more familiar elements (for Bon Iver, anyway) such as the pedal steel and a genuinely heart-rending melody, it’s possible for a brief moment to believe that maybe this guy can turn any dead horse genre into gold. The feeling is deliberately out of step with the rest of the album, as if knocked out of time itself, having arrived at some distant place where whatever we thought was cool in 2011 is no longer relevant, and where so much time has passed that you’re just plain weary, simply looking forward to whatever trials you’ve faced in the ensuing years being over at last. That sense of finality rings out in simple phrases like “Aren’t we married?!/I ainʼt living in the dark no more/It’s not a promise, Iʼm just gonna call it.” It’s a thing of great sadness, and yet great relief, bringing the album to a peaceful close, albeit one that requires heavy suspension of disbelief.
It’s honestly weird to listen so carefully, so intently to the different layers on this album and yet still be comfortable with the “Indie Folk” categorization I’ve given it in iTunes. But any label I apply would sound positively stupid for at least a handful of its songs, and therein lies Bon Iver’s charm. In developing a distaste for writing songs using the age-old, tried-and-true, sit down with an acoustic guitar in your bedroom method, Justin Vernon has turned out one of the year’s most gentle, gracious, and yet occasionally still grandiose pieces of postmodern poetry. (See? I can do alliteration too.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Minnesota, WI $2
Hinnom, TX $.50
Lisbon, OH $0
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Originally published on Epinions.com.