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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver


BON IVER: BON IVER, BON IVER (2011)

1) Perth; 2) Minnesota, WI; 3) Holocene; 4) Towers; 5) Michicant; 6) Hinnom, TX; 7) Wash.; 8) Calgary; 9) Lisbon, OH; 10) Beth / Rest.

No fewer than seven different musicians accompany Justin Vernon on his sophomore stab at a masterpiece, which should prompt the obvious question: «How the heck did all these people fit within one log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin? Must have been really crammed out there!» Then you learn that the album was not recorded in a log cabin at all, but in an abandoned veteri­narian clinic in Fall Creek, remodeled as a recording studio. Still sounds romantic, although one would expect it to be somehow reflected in the recording — a couple of songs about being kind to animals wouldn't hurt, and yet I can find no traces. Of course, with Bon Iver's lyrics never ma­king figurative sense, let alone literal, you can never be sure.

The move from acoustic minimalism to denser art-pop arrangements paid off brilliantly: most re­viewers were happy beyond measure, since they could amply concentrate on discussing the Im­portant Artistic Reasons behind the move, and praise the Important Artist for Progressive Artistic Growth, shown so early on in his career. A few disgruntled voices complained that the growth was actually Regressive, and picketed April Base Studios with signs reading JUDAS and BACK TO THE LOG CABIN and EMMA IS NOT HAPPY. (In their imaginations, at least). But even those voices generally acknowledged that the songs were still great, it's just the idea of develo­ping a bigger sound for them that didn't quite work out.

In fact, the atmosphere on Bon Iver, Bon Iver did not change a whole lot from the minimalistic soundscapes of For Emma. The basic vibes, moods, goals, structures remain exactly the same. The falsetto singing has no plans of going anywhere (although, for honesty's sake, Vernon shows a little more range this time around); nor do the lyrics show any signs of advancing from sheer nonsense to, at the very least, some plain old surrealism.

We got to give some credit to the Artist. Like so many of them, he is struggling to build himself his own personal dream world, since none of the others seem to be satisfactory enough. This dream world bears a passing resemblance to the United States of America, because it is also di­vided into states, and its towns and cities sometimes even have the same names as the correspon­ding US locations (ʽLisbon, OHʼ), although some of the locations are quite confusing (ʽMinne­sota, WIʼ?) and others could even be offensive to certain Americans (ʽHinnom, TXʼ — you Te­xans do realize that ʽHinnomʼ has the same root as Gehenna, right?).

In this dream world, people mostly talk in disjointed, impressionistic associations; play slow, soft, traditionally melodic music; sing in sweet voices, usually multi-tracking them along the way; and always exude a mixed happy-sad feeling because, after all, there are very few things in life over which one couldn't or shouldn't get happy and sad at the same time. If, every once in a while, you start getting the feeling that it all sounds discomfortingly close to banal 1980s-style adult contem­porary, just shake it off. According to a Pitchforkmedia reviewer, it was a brave move on Justin Vernon's side to move things so close to 1980s adult contemporary, and who are we to argue with that? 1980s artists recorded crappy music without understanding how crappy it was (and how much more crappy it would sound with each passing year); recording crappy music with such an understanding is definitely a far braver move.

It is true that bringing in extra people at least helped to make some of these songs acquire extra dynamics. ʽPerthʼ, for instance, gradually expands from a pretty guitar flourish to bombastic mar­tial drum patterns and then into a veritable sea of sound with synthesizers, horns, and shrill elec­tric lead lines that is quite far removed from log cabin isolationism — and yet, at the same time, does not really create any different type of mood. It could have been a fantastic track if the flou­rish in question worked in a trance-inducing manner, and the drum patterns and the wall of sound were gelling with it in some sort of meaningful way. To my ears, they don't: the guitar pattern is boring (and, after a while, quite annoyingly boring), the martial drums make no sense, and the wall of sound is neither structured well enough to punctuate the senses, nor dares to whip its brief traces of aggressive atonality into something genuinely alive — for fear that some people might dare to suppose a «rocking» strain to this very, very, very peaceful experience, I guess.

I could write a similar diatribe against just about every song on the album, which all range from staggeringly boring (ʽMichicantʼ is a straightahead criminal offense against the slide guitar) to mildly passable (ʽTowersʼ has a cozy country-pop drive, and the strings that double the slide gui­tars are an inventive touch) to almost good (the first half of ʽMinnesotaʼ, with its active fuzz bass lines, is the album's only «gutsy» moment). But what's the use? Just like For Emma, Bon Iver will work for you if you can feel it for this guy, or, more precise, if this guy makes you feel it for him. I feel nothing. All the ingredients are there, but they are all inserted in the wrong order, in wrong amounts, in the wrong handling.

When they get around to closing the album, the desire to strangle the producer becomes almost unbearable: as much as I try to, I just cannot interpret ʽBeth / Restʼ, with its electronic drums and keyboards, as a «brave» decision on the songwriter's part — I can only interpret it as a subconsci­ous tribute to one of the miriads of tepid ballads he must have been hearing on the radio when he was six or seven years old. Please do not count me in on this game; I refuse to accept these rules that allow «The Artist» to pass off bland Eighties nostalgia as «Modern Art». It is not a sin to be infected with any sort of influence, even Kim Wilde — it is a sin to extol the very fact of your be­ing influenced as your artistic statement. And no, masking that influence with sets of schizopha­sic lyrics that could just as well be machine-produced does not help.

I do not think that Bon Iver, Bon Iver is any «better» or «worse» than For Emma. Technically, it has a different sound, but substantially, nothing has changed. Except for my suspicion that the existence and appraisal of Bon Iver confirms that, on an official level, «indie» has become as much of a rotting corpse as everything else, and that the wheel has completed its next cycle — the so-called «independent musical press» has advanced to approximately the same level of credibi­lity as Rolling Stone. Yep, just my humble personal opinion, nothing else. And a heartfelt thumbs down — the most sincerely emotional outburst from me that could be associated with this record.

Check "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" (MP3) on Amazon

9 comments:

  1. This is a pretty awful album. As someone who actually liked "For Emma..." (and still do, so shoot me!) I was (and continue to be) baffled by the praise heaped on this stiff - further evidence that music critics are more in love with trends and bandwagon jumping than actual music.

    I'm amazed that anyone can sit through this mimsy chuff!

    "Beth / Rest" is shite of the highest order - or in fact to call it so might sully the good name of "shite".

    Tim M

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  2. At some point the whole modern "Indie"-sphere is going to have to reconcile it's "stuff white people like" problem. You have various artists of the same dynamic ilk: Grizzly Bear, the National, Bon Iver, Beirut etc. just straight up losing the purpose of what makes alternative music... "progressive". It seems that there is a regression back to the mean of hyping up the lazy, half-worn stuff of yore like crappy-era Leonard Cohen, Christopher Cross, Putamayo/Rough Guide glossy Baltic pop to, let's be honest, musically naive ears and thinking that you've struck some new found sense of alternative.

    If the alternative Bon Iver and other artists of this ilk are presenting is just the same conformist sound of before, why bother gussying it up with modern production and presenting it as some grand artistic statement... in the end you're still metaphorically-speaking an artist presenting a nice enough Instagram and pretending it's the next coming of Monet.

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  3. _"In this dream world, people mostly talk in disjointed, impressionistic associations; play slow, soft, traditionally melodic music; sing in sweet voices, usually multi-tracking them along the way; and always exude a mixed happy-sad feeling because, after all, there are very few things in life over which one couldn't or shouldn't get happy and sad at the same time. If, every once in a while, you start getting the feeling that it all sounds discomfortingly close to banal 1980s-style adult contem­porary, just shake it off. According to a Pitchforkmedia reviewer, it was a brave move on Justin Vernon's side to move things so close to 1980s adult contemporary, and who are we to argue with that? 1980s artists recorded crappy music without understanding how crappy it was (and how much more crappy it would sound with each passing year); recording crappy music with such an understanding is definitely a far braver move."_

    Already praised the For Emma review for its righteous wrath, but I feel impelled to repeat myself. This rises in places to the Lester Bangs class of hatchet jobs.

    Though for the record I'm slightly more favorably disposed to Justin than you are. "Woods" is a good idea well executed, and "Holocene" is a pleasant Sigur Rós rip off. Of what I've heard, though, there ends the praise.

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  4. I like this album more than the first one merely because it's less monotonous. Still couldn't manage more than one full listen to it though. I like Diego's comment about this kind of stuff being musical instagram. Dressing your crappy photos up with fancy pre-set filters doesn't make the photos any less crappy, and the same goes for music like this.

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  5. Well this is pretty fun!
    I honestly laughed out loud out of sheer amazement when "Beth / Rest" came around. As far as parodies of bad 80's music Weird Al would have considered those first seconds below the belt, the fact that it's apparently being taken seriously by the indie community only makes it funnier.
    This guy's first album just bored me to death and annoyed with me with it's stupid falsetto and incompetent lyrics, this one at least amused me in its sheer inadequacy.

    PS.
    I agree with the beginning of "Minnesota" having a nice bass drive, but only because it reminds of one of the songs (I can't remember which one now) of John Frusciante's "The Empyrean".

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  6. Oh George, you are so funny when your wrath is roused.

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  7. "Beth/Rest" is seriously one of the worst songs I've ever heard in my life. Not only is terrible 80's adult-contemporary with Kenny G horns, it also adds auto-tune to the mix to just make the experience all the more gross. It'd be funny if it wasn't so depressing.

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  8. From what I listened on Grooveshark (I could listen to both albums, but had no patience), this patient sounds like a sort of indie Peter Gabriel spiced up with Kanye West auto-tune effects. But wait... P.G. has his song covered, and there's a collaboration with K.W.

    Oh boy... at least his falsetto is less grating to my ears than the cat mating of the Sigur Ros' vocalist.

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  9. So you only like how the music sounds if you can 'feel for the guy'??? Why not liking it because it's beautful sounding and emotionally resounding??

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