Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
by Scott Creney
In the context of sensitive bearded guy acoustic music, Bon Iver’s new album is nothing short of courageous.
His last album was called For Emma, Forever Ago. It was spare, acoustic, and it had — like most albums that get written about everywhere these days — a great story behind it. Justin Vernon (there is no Bon Iver; nobody in The Doobie Brothers had the last name ‘Doobie’ either, nor were they brothers) isolated himself in a remote cabin for four months and emerged with an album that sounded every bit as lonely, fragile, and desolate as the circumstances under which it was created.
This new album might as well be called Emma Who? Aside from Justin Bon Jovi’s aching, multi-layered falsetto, it sounds like a different artist entirely. Give the guy credit. He’s taken a risk. Gone is the mostly acoustic instrumentation. In 2011, Bon Iver means electric piano, horns, woodwinds, synths, backwards drums, feedback, and the occasional orchestra flourish. Justin’s gone on record comparing ‘Beth/Rest’, the album’s elegiac closer, to Bruce Hornsby, and he’s not all that far off. There’s even some Joe Satriani-esque guitar noodlings. It retraces the 80s without a hint of irony, with no kitsch factor to speak of.
Bon Iver is hazier than you expect. It is lost and narcoticized, simultaneously desperate and asleep. The album flows like a dream, watery and opaque. It’s difficult to make out the words. Songs flow in and out of each other in a tremulous soup. It’s an album that’s made for humid summer nights (sorry, Australia), moss in the trees, a head full of chemicals, and a backyard of crickets phasing in and out of tune. Like most dreams, some moments are more compelling than others.
At times his falsetto veers close to Antony, other times his voice is closer to TV On the Radio. There are echoes of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, a project which keeps getting stranger and stranger (this is a good thing).
There’s a great snare drum that comes in at the three-minute mark of ‘Michicant’. It’s all delayed-out and spacey like some kind of dub. It’s out of time with the rest of the track. The synth-strings and treated guitars swell and recede. It’s a fantastic moment of sound.
‘Lisbon, Oh’ is the most beautiful one-and-a-half minutes I’ve heard all year. The bending synth, the random electronic noises percolating throughout — it’s closer to Eno’s Another Green World than it is to anything else.
I can appreciate the album’s mystery. It holds on to its secrets tightly; it is reluctant to tell you everything. Bon Iver is not content to be liked, or purchased. It is not cloying in the way that Coldplay is cloying. It is not bright-eyed and chirpy like those damned Fleet Foxes. It is unsure of itself, and in these days of braying superficiality, such delicacy feels a little refreshing.
He’s left his contemporaries in his cold embittered dust. Good for him.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing on Bon Iver as dynamic, as heart-stoppingly melodic, or even as lyrically profound as this other bit of 80s-inspired production nonsense.
But in the 21st Century, we take our signs of musical life where we can find them. Like a fantastic restaurant serving a style of food I have no interest in eating, I’m still glad it exists and I’ll eagerly tell all my friends about it. Hell, if someone offers to pay, I’ll even tag along. Let’s go eat at Bon Iver’s. I hear the cough syrup is delicious.