Bon Iver, Bon Iver
By Eric Sams | 18 July 2011
It’s more than a little intimidating to disagree with an opinion as forcefully and skillfully stated as Jessica Faulds’ review of the new Bon Iver album. In fact, where my perspective diverges from Jessica’s is less in the elements that she actually heard in the album and more in her interpretation of the meaning of those elements. That is to say, if my difference of opinion involved the actual content of the review I probably wouldn’t have had the temerity to counterpoint at all; better to keep my views to myself and avoid the inevitably unfavorable comparison of my point to hers (I don’t even know how to pronounce Michiko Kakutani’s name). Fortunately for me, it seems that Jessica and I heard many of the same parts when we listened to Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The whole that we constructed when we cobble those parts together, however, was very different.
To wit: I’d agree that Bon Iver, Bon Iver is not as wrenchingly sad as For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), and, because of that, is not intimate in the same baleful way. I’d agree that Bon Iver chiefly signifies Justin Vernon’s expansion and exploration out into the wider world of instrumentation and production, and that the bombast that results can initially take a Bon Iver fan off guard. Most importantly, and with apologies to Jessica for the awkwardly edited quotation, I’d agree with this: “Apparently inspired by his time with Kanye West, Vernon has made a producer’s album… In putting down the guitar, Vernon has discovered in himself a formidable producer.“ Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what happened here!! Isn’t that incredible?!
Well, apparently not. In commenting on Justin Vernon’s new-found production prowess, Jessica neatly juxtaposes the expansive vistas of Bon Iver, Bon Iver with the haunting melodicism of Vernon’s past efforts: “Something gained, something lost.” But the assumption implied by this estimation is that what was gained and what was lost were of roughly equal artistic value. If anything, Jessica seems maybe to place more artistic weight on the side of the scale that holds what she refers to as Vernon’s “cabin in the woods and his overarching grief.” Whereas for me the fact that Justin Vernon turns out to be a great songwriter and a great producer is nothing short of a pentecostal fucking revelation.
How could it not be? It’s that feeling of finding money in your pocket that you didn’t know was there, except in this case it’s not, like, a $20 bill, but 1,000 shares of Apple stock in 1997. It would be like finding out that your X-Box could also slow-cook pork, or that getting enough “awesomes” on Turntable.fm would result in the actual approval of your peers. Because let’s be clear: this is not the work of a decent producer, or a better-than-average producer, or even a good producer; Bon Iver, Bon Iver is the emergence of a brilliant producer. Jessica herself acknowledges this, if only briefly: “[T]he attention to detail is almost pathological, guaranteeing a trove of sonic paraphernalia for careful listeners.” And, sweet Lord, is that trove obscenely rich with tiny, self-contained fractals of loveliness.
So if Jessica sees these sonic gems as the side show to a confident but ultimately flawed effort at maturation, I see a talented troubadour revealing himself to be a five-tool player and ramping up to spend a decade striding the indie world like a colossus. Maybe this guy doesn’t want to learn from Kanye. Maybe he wants to be Kanye. I mean, Kanye was just a rapper once, too, right?
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is wrought using a dazzling pointillism. Producer Vernon has carefully studded his album with thousands of cul-de-sacs of grace and poise and lavishly attended precision. There are, quite literally, too many of these flourishes to list, but here’s an inexhaustive sampling: the quicksilvery steel guitar slides that cushion the crisp, rounded xylophone strikes at the beginning of “Holocene”; the sneaky tempo shifts by which “Michicant” goes from faded calm, to country twang, to straight majestic; the stolid banjo plucking running the length of “Minnesota, WI,” now caked with synth, guitar or brass, now scraped clean to scamper naked beneath Vernon’s pledge, “Never gonna break / Never gonna break.” And between, and around, and through all these moments runs the same beleaguered warmth, the same worn and beloved fabric that undergirded the best moments of For Emma. So I guess I’d just truncate Jessica’s description to “something gained.”
Of course there is “Beth/Rest.” I, like Jessica, have no nostalgia for the excesses of the decade that spawned me. In particular, I pray fervently that the twenty-teenz do not see some half-assed, post-ironic resurgence of ’80s soft rock. But: whatever else “Beth/Rest” is, it is a pitch-perfect replication of the butterfuck balladry that that genre had to offer. So while I have no desire to see a resurrection, I have friends who ache to regress to just such a Reagan-scape, and by this song they are well pleased. And isn’t that what good producers do? Don’t they immediately recognize the hot buttons that make the hits of every genre distinct and functional? Isn’t that how come Rick Rubin? Today, it’s Phil Collins. Ugh. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be Ray Davies. Rad!
Which brings me to “Perth.” If Obama wants to skip the whole 2012 election ass-pain and become perennially enthroned as King of America, he should just switch out “Hail to the Chief” for this impossibly regal processional. “Perth” is a masterstroke in the art of the deliberately unfolding crescendo, rising literally out of an extended silence, then a single florid electric guitar riff, then a quirkily phrased falsetto melody backed by an equally quirkily layered falsetto choir—and then it apexes in the track’s third movement. When the drums hit and the guitar riff explodes like a dying star, it feels like riding a pterodactyl over the Grand Canyon at the dawn of the apocalypse.
So, yes, it seems to me that this album is pretty great. But more than that, I recognize the greatness that an album like this portends of its creator. I contend that Producer Vernon has designed a thing festooned with a thousand minuscule points of light, all of them held together by the aesthetic cloth that Songwriter Vernon has made as trusted and uniquely American as denim. Which makes _Bon Iver _ the album a Bedazzled jean jacket vest of near infinite appeal. More, it bespeaks Justin Vernon’s potential, as both Songwriter and Producer, to become one of the most evocative and striking jean jacket vest Bedazzlers of his generation.