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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago


BON IVER: FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO (2007)

1) Flume; 2) Lump Sum; 3) Skinny Love; 4) The Wolves (Act I & II); 5) Blindsided; 6) Creature Fear; 7) Team; 8) For Emma; 9) re: Stacks.

For a brief while, Bon Iver (a graphic misrepresentation of French bon hiver ʽgood winterʼ, so make sure you get your French accent on the right syllable) seemed to be one of the hottest things happening on the indie scene. It was, in fact, like a proverbial indie fairy tale come true: a «visi­onary», mildly autistic, highly sensitive guy (Justin Vernon, a twenty-six year old major in Reli­gious Studies from Wisconsin), suffering from mononucleosis and girlfriend problems, secluding himself in a winter cabin, completely alone with his guitar and some recording equipment —and out comes a minimalistic masterpiece of lonely, melancholic beauty. This is the stuff NY Times bestsellers are made of.

What really surprised me about this album, upon studying people's reactions, was the rather large amount of «on-the-fence» reviews, along the lines of «fairly nice listen, okay and all that, but cer­tainly not deserving of the hype» and so on. Because For Emma, Forever Ago is certainly not your «average» indie record — it is one of those albums that should be driving people into op­posite tren­ches, machine-guns at the ready. It may be tempting for the evaluator to try and rise above the disagreements, but as tempting as it is, it simply makes no sense. I honestly do not see a way to call Justin Vernon's offering anything other than «genius» or «crap». And in between the two — sorry Bon Iver fans — I can only choose the latter.

Note: At this point, every bona fide Bon Iver fan is supposed to say «You just don't get it, do you?» and click the «Back» button on the browser. You have been warned: leave now, be­fore somebody gets hurt.

First and foremost: I am sick to my stomach of young bearded melancholic Artists locking them­selves up in log cabins with acoustic guitars. At the very least, one thing which all that time spent inside the log cabin could be devoted to, would be to fuckin' learn to play that acoustic guitar. If Nick Drake's Pink Moon ever had the right to be called a minimalistic masterpiece (which I am not sure of, but in any case, Pink Moon is fifty times the masterpiece For Emma could ever claim to be), it was because the minimalistic guitar parts were produced by a master guitar player, a genuine demi-god of the instrument. Justin Vernon, in comparison, does not seem to know one thing on the guitar that a bright school kid, listening to old folk records, could not master within one month of picking up the thing.

Second: The proverbially gorgeous falsetto simply does not cut it any more. Unless this is the first falsetto you have heard in your life, the sweet, soothing, lulling sound of Justin Vernon's voice adds nothing whatsoever to the legions of falsetto-using singers already assembled. The on­ly thing of note is the consistency: unlike such wimps as Brian Wilson, Prince, or even Antony Hegarty, Vernon sings almost exclusively in falsetto, threatening the very reputation of the entire State of Wisconsin. A brave chore (unless he also talks like that), but a head-splitting one.

Third and most important. I am not the one to deny the power and importance of atmosphere. I am certainly not against minimalism as such. And I certainly do not agree with Zappa on the ge­ne­ral principle that «broken hearts are for assholes». But there are limits to every sort of patience and tolerance, and as far as I am concerned, For Emma crosses that line quite definitively. The broken heart of Justin Vernon is probably the 10,000th broken heart or so that I have come across in my relations with various kinds of art. Just because it took a log cabin in Wisconsin and an all-out falsetto delivery to acquaint me with it, is not going to make me any more excited. Where is the goddamn music to go along with the broken heart?

Admittedly, from time to time there are a few vocal hooks that might, even should be salvaged from the realm of boredom (and if I ever notice someone appropriating them for a better record without sharing the proper credit, I promise to pretend not to have noticed). Most of them are tucked somewhere within the two slightly more upbeat tunes — ʽFlumeʼ and the title track; I also admit to liking the chorus of ʽCreature Fearʼ. The former two have bits of folksy beauty, the lat­ter has a bit of dream-pop charm... somehow, on these three, Vernon must have accidentally fallen upon a few non-standard, evocative vocal moves.

But all of these are exceptions, and they never obstruct too much the overall flow of the record, which is quite comparable with the average flow of a water storage basin on a very slightly bree­zy day. Sometimes it outdoes itself by dragging at an absolute tortoise pace (ʽThe Wolvesʼ), as we are supposed to revel in the naked pain and beauty of Vernon's voice and its multiple over­dubs. More often, it picks the tempo up just a little bit, usually on the strength of some basic folk shuffle strumming. Not that there is any big difference.

As for Justin Vernon's personal drama... you know what? I'm sorry about the guy as I may be sorry for every other guy or girl that suffers more than he or she deserves to, but I find his poetry clumsy and derivative (here is a typical example: "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon / I am my mother on the wall, with us all / I move in water, shore to shore / No­thing's more"); his attempts to artistically individualize his problems at the same time overblown to the skies and undercooked to the core; and, of course, all the general indie-trendy hoopla fuss raised about the record reflecting the general crisis of the times.

In the end, I have no choice but to agree with Robert Christgau, the lone voice in the crowd to give the album its deserved C+ — or with my old idol Mark Prindle, who dismissed Bon Iver in his usually laconic way: «without the falsetto, it'd just be boring; with the falsetto, it's unlisten­able». Count this whole review as a somewhat superfluous commentary on that judgement. And please, please, PRETTY PLEASE, NO MORE BEARDED LONERS WITH ACOUSTIC GUI­TARS! WHERE THE FUCK IS A ROCK'N'ROLL GUSTAV MAHLER WHEN YOU NEED ONE? THUMBS DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!

28 comments:

  1. Ha. This is exactly the kind of review I'd love to get more from you. I agree: bearded folkies ARE that annoying (I sort of include Fleet Foxes into that, but with some reservations). I heard this album at a particular moment in my life, and it hit the nerve, and I was duly impressed. However, I gave it a more or less objective listen about a year ago, and it just sounded bland, washed-out and unbelievably whiny. There may be some pretty melodies there, but you won't know it from the presentation. Needless to say, his second album nearly killed me off with its smooth, smooth dentistry.

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  2. So who would you rather be locked for one full week in a cabin with: a bearded loner with acoustic guitar, or an introspective redhead with piano?

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  3. This is bullshit! Not your review, the album.
    I guess I can understand how some people, like Alexey here, could be hit hard by an album like thsi (or any album really) if they heard it at the right (wrong) point in their life, but how this bland crap managed to fool apparently the whole world of music-lovers is beyond me.

    I wrote better poetry than the crap on this album when I was 13, and even then I was rightly embarrased by it.
    I've been wondering, who exactly is it that guys like this are inspired by? Because all the classic singer-songwriters, from Bob Dylan to Nick Drake to Lou Reed to Skip Spence to Leonard Cohen to whomever, might have been just as heartbroken or lonely or whatever, but none of them even even remotely whined like this. There's no moment on "Pink Moon" that, in and of itself, could be described as aggressively pushing it's exclusively self-pitying agenda on the listener, which seems to be what this album is all about.
    Is Neil Young to blame? Or maybe it's that Elliott Smith guy. But at least he was talented, and just as self-critiquing as pitying.

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  4. Don't like Christgau at all - it's like he assumes all his readers have chronic ADHD, and so shrinks his reviews down to such a small size that they're basically useless. Also, he gave every one of Nirvana's albums a higher rating than Radiohead's highest rated - his tastes are not mine, frankly.

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  5. When I saw this pop up I groaned, thinking I'd have to read about yet another person grovelling at it's feet. Thank goodness you don't. My uncle gave me this album for free last year saying he just didn't get the hype. I spun it with moderate anticipation, considering I know a lot of people with otherwise respectable taste who honestly really like Bon Iver and consider this album to be an all time classic. But no, I found the songs ridiculously boring and his singing just ridiculous. It took all my might to get through just one listen. It certainly says something (and not something good) that Bon Iver sounds better auto-tuning himself on Kanye West albums than he does singing his own material.

    I disagree with Alexy's brief mention of Fleet Foxes above. Combining the usual folky atmosphere with *good* songwriting, lovely vocal arrangements, and lyrics that actually sound like thought was put in them, they're everything that Bon Iver isn't.

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  6. George, I wonder how long you'd make it through one of Jandek's records. Bon Iver's minimalism looks like ELP next to Jandek!

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  7. How strange to name a group like this what does such a misspeling mean I wonder

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  8. How eerie, I'm also mildly autistic, have a background in religion studies, play acoustic guitar and I would suffer from girlfriend problems if only I could dare ask any of them out to a date. (nevertheless, I do spend a lot of time moping! :)

    But don't worry George, the only recordings I've done are me humming Scarborough Fair to an audience of my cat and my teddy bear, so you're safe for now!

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  9. Umm, aren't you a few years too late on this review?

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    1. Is that supposed to be witty? He's "a few years late" for 98% of his reviews if you look at it that way.

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  10. So glad you don't like this. I sort of like his song "Woods" though (from the 2008 EP), best use of autotune I've heard.

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  11. Re.: bearded guys - I'd rather stick to Peter Zilberman.

    Re.: loners with guitar - Elliott Smith, and no options available.

    Also, I can't wait for your reviews of Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel. Now that's what I call intensity.

    But then, back to our goodwinterman thing... George, why so serious? :)

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  12. Ah well, each to their own I suppose.

    Y'see, I like this album, for all its flaws there is some emotional truth ringing around the beardy, ten thumbed guitar playing and fervent falsetto. It's more of a mood piece than anything else, and I still find it hits a nerve. At least it's an honest album, hamfisted lyrics aside.

    The second album, now that's a different story - I'd pour scorn and derision on that until the bovines moo their way back to the cowshed.

    By the way George, and I'm kinda facinated to know the answer, why do you own albums you dislike? I have an annual clearout of unwanted albums for the simple reasons of space and economics (gawd bless the marketplace for second hand CDs). Do you live in a warehouse?

    Tim M

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    1. There are a couple of wonderful recent inventions known as "mp3s" and "external hard drives". Don't know it that's George's method, but I'm told it's all the rage.

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    2. Well I'll be buggered with a fish slice, you may very well be right!

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    3. Do it all digital and keep even the shitty ones for, y'know, the sake of having a music collection.

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  13. George has captured most of what I have felt about this album myself. Seriously, with all the great amount of music that's ever been released, if you cut all the bullshit (the backstory, the year it was released, etc.) out, and just listen to the music you'll find there's no there, there and countless other artists had done this same thing way better. Certain loner albums would best be left to be listened to by their own makers... and their family at most.

    What's worse is devoting 40-some odd minutes of your life on listening to this when you could have spent 40-some odd minutes listening to JJ Cale's Okie.

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  14. Oh, this is sublime.

    I haven't heard the album, but the righteous anger in this review is glorious.

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  15. I haven't yet heard this album, but the followup is obnoxious as hell. There are a few good songs on it, but absolutely none of them can make up for the atrocity that is "Beth/Rest". I'm looking forward to your Bon Iver, Bon Iver review.

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  16. Well, George, while I respect your views on music a lot, I have to disagree on this one. For me, the melodies on this album are gorgeous, with "The Wolves" and "Flume" standing out in particular. I also love the haunting, spare sound throughout...it just transports me to another world. While I often agree with you on music, I'm going to file Bon Iver with "Bruce Springsteen" on artists we'll have to agree to disagree over.

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  17. George, you must not have a soul.

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    1. George doesn't empathize the same music as I do! He must have no sooooouuuul

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    2. 1st Anonymous, it's a maturity thing. I'll quote Prefab Sprout here singing about Bruce Springsteen: "Some things hurt more, much more, than cars and girls." Reapproach this album after life has burnt you some more and you'll find it hilariously-naïve and teenage-sulky. This is why I can no longer listen to Morrissey.

      I've yet to see any review of anything Bon Iver-related that doesn't mention the Mythology behind the album, rather than the results. It's like every critic knows the myth is more interesting than the bland results, (which, coincidentally, is how I view Bruce Springsteen).

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  18. I haven't heard full albums of this band but I certainly didn't like what I did hear. I am not going to comment on their merits or otherwise but I want to say that with near zero expectations, I still felt let down. This....this is all they've got?

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  19. Obviously you've never suffered physically or emotionally in your entire life, or you'd get this album and know it's a masterpiece.

    "Someday my pain"

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    1. "Obviously" you've never been exposed to good music, or you'd know a phony piece of trash from a genuine masterpiece.

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  20. Finally - someone else who recognizes this for the hackneyed garbage that it is! I can't stand this humorless, meandering nonsense; the widespread acclaim makes absolutely no sense to me. I've been a fan of your reviews for awhile, George, and you're certainly spot on with this crap.

    Fleet Foxes are solid, though - glad to see that Byrds influence still ringing true in today's music.

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