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" (MP3) on Amazon