The story (at least as much as we all care to know of it) starts with a relatively unknown American indie musician with a voice self-described as sounding "like Hootie". After playing in and out of several different acts, he retreats to a cabin in the woods, resorts to a falsetto, and records a self-released album of hushed, introverted folk tunes. It could have ended up like this, people. Instead, it not only resulted in a breakthrough LP (2007/08's For Emma, Forever Ago), but then sent one Justin Vernon onto a myriad of other projects, including the playful indie R&B of Gayngs and, most famously, recording in the studio with Kanye West.
OK, I know—you guys know all of this already. But do you know what really happened in that cabin in the woods? Did Vernon manage to slay his inner Hootie to become the mighty Bon Iver? Or did he actually just morph that trait into a form more pleasing—and deceiving—to our confidently discerning ears? Maybe I'm being a touch facetious in saying so, but the new self-titled release, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, kind of suggests the latter.
In the midst of a period of debate that is seeing the album become one of the year's more divisive releases, it's not unfair to state that Bon Iver is really just adult-contemporary music for hipsters. And furthermore, that's not actually a bad thing; it just is what it is—and after a lifetime of pooping all over major-label MOR balladry, we should really take our lumps and own up to it.
When I listen to Bon Iver, Bon Iver—and especially the already much-maligned Hornsby/Marx-ian ballad, "Beth/Rest"—I'm reminded of Carl Wilson's exceptional 33 1/3 book, A Journey To The End Of Taste. Among other things, that book was about attempting to get to heart of what informs people's musical taste—especially concerning critics. Why is "My Heart Will Go On" so insufferable? What buttons does it push that, say, Scott Walker's 4 doesn't (and vice versa)? And would we be better off at least attempting to accept Dion's popularity (if not embrace it)?
Clearly, many critics already feel that Bon Iver is well worth the uninitiated embracing. I mean, c'mon! Listen to the guy's voice, for chrissakes: It's gorgeous!! And it is. But even beyond the rather distasteful Korg keyboards of "Beth/Rest", Bon Iver, Bon Iver is loaded with many instrumental tones (especially on guitar) that frankly sound thin and weak. Lyrically, its sentiments are so lost in oblique imagery (you can read them all here), that they potentially become as grating as the obvious platitudes of a Diane Warren hit. Ultimately, both styles fail to achieve that magical intersection of immediate resonance and evolving, transferrable meaning that characterize truly great song lyrics.
This isn't an attempt to discredit what is a quite lovely album with which I'm deeply entranced. I absolutely recommend this record. Rather—and hopefully in the spirit of Wilson's book—it's a reminder to us so-called serious music fans that we also like crap, too. It's just that instead of being clearly constructed of blatant greeting card sentiments and chest-thumping orchestral crescendoes, our "crap" is just harder to understand. It's full of ridiculously muddled words littered with emotional signposts that really lead nowhere. It features instrumentation often unnecessarily strangulated of bright colours and definition, as though to assure us that our emotional states are more poignant, mysterious, hard-fought and honest.
Of course, they're not. But when we listen to a record like Bon Iver, we truly do believe that they are. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of music.