Bon Iver, Bon Iver
By Jessica Faulds | 28 June 2011
In an effort to come to terms with the inherent dilemma of reviewing—that is, of involving one’s self with the arts as a passer of judgment, assigning grades to often multi-faceted and deeply personal works—I’ve recently been wading through some of the more punishing book reviews by notorious asshole critic Michiko Kakutani. Kakutani, who has written for the New York Times for over a quarter century, has become infamous for eagerly flaying everyone from John Updike to Toni Morrison. Never one to equivocate, she begins her review of This Book Will Save Your Life with a stone-cold, comprehensively damning lead-off: “A.M. Homes’ dreadful new novel…” and she tucks a similar blanket of condemnation around Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, ultimately dubbing it “lame and unsatisfying.” Naturally, most writers don’t take well to these lashings, and many have fired back at Kakutani—Salman Rushdie by describing her as “a weird woman,” and Jonathan Franzen, more viciously, by labeling her “the stupidest person in New York.” Yet the writer who actually manages to articulate what it is about Kakutani’s reviews that is often so distressing is another literary commentator, Ben Yagoda, who rejects her thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach by arguing that “whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling.”
And with that in mind, I can now begin to speak about Bon Iver’s follow-up to the acclaimed and piercingly sad For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) by way of its final song, “Beth/Rest.” Because, while the Kakutani in me wants simply to lunge for the throat and label the track unlistenable schmaltz (and to lament the fact that the Glow has already used up its yearly quota of Phil Collins analogies), Yagoda’s quotation reminds me that this song cannot simply be reduced to an uncomfortably gooey blob of soft-rock; it can also be seen as a telling step into new territory for Justin Vernon. This strange homage to ’80s grandeur, rendered in murky electric piano and soulful backbeats, sees Vernon looking for meaning outside of his own experience. It is an homage to other music and other times, and while most of us may not actually wish to revisit the hyper-consumerism and gauzy romanticism of soft rock’s heyday, for Vernon, this outward gazing seems like an important attempt to widen Bon Iver’s scope. Considering that his previous work has been coated in sadness, and that Vernon is now actually pretty happy, it’s only reasonable that he needs to find new footing. After all, when your art has hitherto been defined by your heartbreak, what do you say when you’re no longer sad and lonely?
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (yes, that’s really what it’s called) as a whole seems to be Vernon’s attempt to find an answer to this question, and though his response is a little muddled, it does make for a largely enjoyable and often beautiful set of songs. Even without his cabin in the woods and his overarching grief, Vernon still has his signature falsetto, an excellent command of strangely phrased melodies, and an absolutely killer team of musicians backing him up (including some of the most restrained percussionists I’ve ever heard). It makes sense, then, that his approach to his new material involves taking the aesthetic that served him so well on Emma and throwing the heft of several huge musical muscles behind it.
And to his credit, Vernon’s instincts are sharp enough that the tracks aren’t choked by the strings, saxes, and synths that end up ensnarled with the plain old guitars and vocals that made up most of Bon Iver’s previous work. Apparently inspired by his time with Kanye West, Vernon has made a producer’s album, one where the songs seem to have been written through some kind of inductive reasoning, starting with sounds and ideas that seem, almost incidentally, to find themselves parts of actual songs. In putting down the guitar, Vernon has discovered in himself a formidable producer.
Something gained, something lost. The suddenly panoramic breadth of Bon Iver’s material certainly gives the listener something to sink down into, and the attention to detail is almost pathological, guaranteeing a trove of sonic paraphernalia for careful listeners. Yet the best songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are those that could easily survive being stripped down to guitar and vocals, that bow most to convention, that flirt with lucidity. In short, they’re those that would have fit in most comfortably on Emma. Which is perhaps awkward—lateral strides serving the band better than ambitious leaps forward—but still leaves us with some truly great songs. In “Towers,” Vernon finds the fertile soil buried beneath well-trod ground, twisting classic folk-country fare into fragile, intricate shapes. And “Michicant” is an absolutely gorgeous piece of nostalgia-porn, complete with bicycle bell percussion. “I was unafraid / I was a boy / I was a tender age,” Vernon coos, and in that moment, swirling in that circular waltz, childhood ghosts cling to each syllable, echoes of long-ago extinguished feeling. And when they slip away into silence, lost to a deepening chasm of years, the loss is palpable.
Ultimately, much of the rest of the album, though heavily embroidered, feels less substantial than these offerings. It may be that much of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is simply too pretty to take seriously. Profundity is rarely entirely appealing, and it seems that in giving itself over to gorgeousness, the album has sacrificed depth. It is nearly devoid of the swoops of disappointment that made its predecessor great, and it is entirely without the (to borrow a phrase from another prolific pop culture commentator, one Ms. Tyra Banks) “ugly-prettiness” that marks so much art that lasts. Not that even the most softened listener would consider For Emma, Forever Ago ugly in a literal sense—but its ugliness, its strangeness, was in the cold, jagged vein of aloneness that ran through it. It was a monument to stark isolation, to ice-cold regret. While the arrangements on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are skilfully done, no amount of vocal layering can emulate the emotional clout of, well, this.
Still, this album is far from a sophomore slump. Bon Iver’s songs have always been many-headed beasts, and while on Bon Iver, Bon Iver necks sprout from necks, Vernon does manage to wrestle most of those unruly heads into submission. On tracks like the aforementioned “Michicant,” or epic slow-burner “Perth,” we also find that he doesn’t have to be utterly unhappy to write moving songs. That silvered vein of meaning running jagged beneath the serene surface doesn’t necessarily have to be loneliness. It just has to be something more consequential than production value, something more closely tied to (gulp) love. If nothing else, this album just goes to show that when Vernon does manage to find that perfect balance of production and deep-in-the-gut songwriting, it is going to be shattering. Even the harshest critics among us may, for a moment, forget about our thumbs.