Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bon Iver (2011)


I love his vocals. As the current folk rock set goes, Justin Vernon's coos and cries hit the sweet spot many others wish they could; even when placed against uninspired music and melodies, he doesn't tend to sound forced, which is quite remarkable. On the opening track of the second Bon Iver record, "Perth," he manages to convey emotion against a heavily melodramatic musical backdrop that sounds like something from the old Family Channel show Crossbow -- something embodying that 1980s idea of what Medieval times were like. So while you may be distracted by the militaristic Mr. Mister sound (little drummer boy percussion and all), Vernon scores and gives the aimless emotional swells a target.

So it is for much of Bon Iver, the summit of a bizarre indie rock moment that has seen the vaulting of Air Supply's production style to veneration once reserved for the likes of Steve Albini. The record bears surprisingly scant aesthetic resemblance to the ingeniously calculated For Emma, Forever Ago, a far less proggy and more convincingly fallen-apart affair. The closest the sophomore effort probably comes is the lovely "Minnesota, WI," which complements a deceptively desolate yet lush log cabin sound with funky enough singing from Vernon to suggest another Kanye collab. The rest travels in either the direction of total subservience to pillowy, tempo-free yacht rock or ever starker Vernon noodling. (Someone said something to me recently about how good Bon Iver's drummer is; my unspoken reaction was "Bon Iver has a drummer?") The more Vernon attempts to score on his own adorability (see "Michicant" and the almost insufferable softcore porn soundtrack "Calgary") the less fun he is, and at the very least a throwback of this kind should be fun.

There are some nifty ideas here; "Hinnom, TX" provides an answer to the burning question of what happens if you remove the beat from a mid-'70s Bee Gees song, which is that you're left with what sounds like a fallen star's impression of post-rock. That's interesting enough, and it even plays to the artist's ample strengths as writer and vocalist, both of which he inexplicably ignores most of the time in favor of some over-the-moon artificial fragility. Vernon knows he's gifted, and he's right, he even knows where and how, but what he doesn't know is when to cut it out; most of these sticky-sweet recordings are just overload. "Holocene" compensates for an initial minimalism by building so much it subverts its own beauty, and the excessive tracking on Vernon doesn't make its chilly preciousness any more convincing. And if "Wash," a repetitive piano figure layered with vague atmospheres and vaguer singing, was any closer to nonexistent I don't see how he could collect songwriting royalties for it.

Vernon's current obsession with 1980s soft rock is less compelling than Dan Bejar's because he fails to sense anything playful about it, instead buying into the "Take My Breath Away" idea of beauty. It does work sometimes; "Lisbon, OH" is a splendid Summer Sun-like mood piece, and "Towers" hits hard because of atmosphere, but keeps its shape because of stronger, grittier instrumentation and writing than on most of the other songs -- and also because it's pure pop, never mind retro. Whatever message Vernon may have taken from his work with Kanye West, I'm wishing he interpreted it as a need to move farther in this direction.

At its most offensive, Bon Iver shows that Vernon's impression of pop music is basically a distillation of the dullest, most dunderheaded musical ideas he's ever heard over the Muzak machine at a mall. "Beth / Rest" is the draggiest piece of irksome indie-pop I've heard this year, and that includes Kurt Vile's album. It's a Peter Cetera song filtered through a Pure Moods ad, and it only conquers boredom because it's so appallingly tasteless -- but across five minutes, it never lifts itself enough even to give a purpose, satirical or emotional, for its skillful appropriation of antiseptic, dated Eric Carmen non-hooks and non-music. It is as objectionable in its own way as Odd Future. Those are your two enemies right now, rock & rollers: Odd Future and "Beth / Rest." Both couch emotional terror in bite-sized, convenient packages that will ultimately be to society's detriment. Both deserve to drift quickly to the bottom of cultural memory. Both are evil, pure evil. Luckily, nothing else on Bon Iver even comes close to being as inhumanely awful. Enya fans may like it; they can add it to the end of their Julianna Barwick mixtape and throw it on when they're feeling adventurous.

The perverse thing about Bon Iver, which was also apparent to a lesser extent on Emma, is that the music can be perfect for a background moment. Even listening while typing this I like it more than the three and a half times I concentrated on it. When you step closer, it loses detail, emotional signifiance. The music I love, from Pet Sounds to Prince to tUnE-yArDs, tends to work in precisely the opposite fashion. Try to ignore them and they'll sneer at you and blow out incomprehensible, displeasing signals. Put Bon Iver on during dinner or a lengthy conversation and you're likely to want to embrace it. It's also a handily succinct thirty-nine minutes, and that counts for something. But no, I don't think you're magnificent either, Justin.

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