There are three outright failures. The nauseating echo of “Hinnom, TX” makes it sound like a 3-minute recording of a man weeping on top of the grand canyon (threatening to jump off but never does). The arrangement of “Wash.” (Check out the names of these songs! They’re all references to places! Read this sarcastically!) counts as counterpoint in a perverted way because it’s the easiest way of going about it, and thus doesn’t deserve to be 5-minutes long.
Though the album – signified from the semi-eponymous title alone because Bon Iver was (?) / is now (?) a band – is a completely different beast than For Emma, Forever Ago, the same overarching problem carries over. The man’s inability to sing in anything except falsetto (and it really sounds like he’s singing in a higher register) means I can’t take him seriously because falsetto =/= soul. Quite love this description courtesy ofpopmatters’ Evan Sawdey, “His high-pitched voice drifting off into the ether each time without bringing the listener along for the journey.” But whereas these two songs would have been the only ones to fit on that album without sounding out of place, they would have been failures still because of his unfortunate decision to mine the “re: Stacks” lyrical well rather than the “Skinny Love” or “For Emma” ones for the entire album. That is to say, they’re more abstract than they were before, and you’re not going to get glimpses of humanity like “And now all your love is wasted / And then who the hell was I” or “For all your lies, you’re still very loveable” that were, for me, the saving grace of For Emma, Forever Ago.
The third failure? The only positive thing I can say about closer “Beth / Rest” is that itsounds positive, and for the first 3 minutes or so, it works because of it. Catharsis, or whatever. But ultimately, it fails because a) in Bon Iver’s mission to replicate the 80s, he decides to bring the awful drum sound that THWACKS really loudly but doesn’t do anything but that and b) to defer to allmusic’s Tim Sendra (I’ve italicized the special bits): “’Beth/Rest,’ is laughable. Sounding like it was recorded using a five-dollar Casio and featuring some of the worst dueling sax/guitar solos you’d ever imagine, it shoots for a majestic, album-ending feel but instead sounds like the theme song to a horrible ’80s movie about unicorns (only not that good).” Sonically, “Michicant” is essentially the exact same song, although because the drumming in “Michicant,” applied at the same beats in the same tempo, are unconventional – a shuffle and a twinkle instead of a thwack – it’s not nearly as boring. Unfortunately, “Michicant”’s melody isn’t nearly as good. You can’t catch ‘em all, I guess.
The negativity aside, some of Bon Iver, Bon Iver does work. Everything comes together well in “Perth,” from the military drums to the upwards sweeping motion from the electric guitar that you couldn’t get on For Emma, Forever Ago, not to mention Vernon’s wordless vocals acting as a one-man gospel is perhaps the most effective use of his voice on the album. Quite dig the huge throbs of bass on “Minnesota, WI” and I am saddened that they’re only used in the first instance of the chorus and not the second or third. “Towers” explodes at the 1:48 mark which justifies the previous two minutes’ existence – it really is that exciting. “Calgary” is the album’s best melody and the use of electronic blips and bleeps were the album’s brightest idea. And “Holocene” is a good one, though it ultimately has the same problem as “Wash.” in that it’s a repeated figure that’s repeated for too long but here, there’s active drumming that help make it an enticing listen. This is the sort of thing that Justin Vernon was going for in between For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, when he added drums to “Skinny Love” on live versions and the sort of thing that I wish Bon Iver, Bon Iver was more of. An intermediate step between the intimacy of For Emma, Forever Ago and the grand sweep that he tries for of Bon Iver, Bon Iver without losing either quality. These 5 songs would make for a good EP.
To close, I hope you guys read the following (I’ve italicized the special bits and bolded the really special bits): “[Bon Iver] are in the unfortunate cultural position of being a band that people are predisposed to hate—the pleasant but ultimately boring band that makes an accessible album that people freak out over for a while. Then, they’re forced to tour gigantic venues, but because their music only makes sense within the context of, like, a Starbucks, they end up being boring live unless you know all the words. Most of the time, the people who front these bands are affable about their newfound success, grateful even. Not Justin Vernon. He’s mad he wins Grammies, mad he sells records, mad everyone thinks he lived in an igloo in Vermont for a winter or some shit, mad his nonexistent Special Feelings get interpreted by legions of fans as their own nonexistent Special Feelings. Vernon isn’t some bearded woods philosopher here to rescue from Sadtown. He’s just some bro with a headband. It’s not his fault that he’s in the position he’s in, but his band still sucks.
I have a friend whose most listened-to album of 2011 was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver (sic), because he worked at a chicken wing place and his boss wanted to play the most inoffensive music he could find. His thoughts on the album could be summed up by, “Pretty.” To call Bon Iver a one-trick pony would be inaccurate, because (a) they are a band and not a horse, and (b) their music actually has a shit-ton of sonic variation. The first Bon Iver album was recorded by Vernon by himself in a cabin in the woods when he was preparing for the zombie apacolypse (sic) (I don’t actually know the story and have no desire to learn it), and the second album was written and recorded with his band, so it’s naturally hella-more fleshed out. In theory, the two albums couldn’t be more different, but when you listen to them, the only conclusion you draw from both is, “Wow, this is pretty pleasant.” It’s in one ear, out the other. To put it another way: no one has ever fucked to Bon Iver. The moment the Hornsbytastic sound waves of “Perth” hit your ears, genitals, whatever, the fucking experience is transmogrified. Your feelings kick in, and all of a sudden you’re “making” “love.” One cannot thrust to it. One can only ease things into other things. Frankly, it’s too much pressure. What if you don’t even like the other person? While that’s fine and all, the whole musical oeuvre of Bon Iver is hokily emotional to the point of affectation.”
—Cinnabon Ivan, “Dear Bon Iver, Don’t Let the Door Hit Your Ass on the Way Out”