Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BON IVER - Bon Iver (2011)

The majority of the song titles on Bon Iver's Bon Iver, his self-titled full-length follow-up to his wildly successful debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, refer to locations at once both recognizable and non-existent...Minnesota, WI...Michicant...Hinnom, TX...Lisbon, OH...and it's this merging of the familiar with the imaginary that lies at the heart of this elusive collection of soft-rock dreamscapes, one of the hardest records to pin down in quite some time.

Fans of the debut can take solace in the fact that like For Emma, Bon Iver is a gentle, introspective work, and that Justin Vernon's instinctive, dynamic falsetto remains as spectacular as ever.

But otherwise, everything has changed.

Where For Emma was raw and desolate and crisp and stripped-to-the-bone clear, Bon Iver is lush and welcoming but utterly shapeless, a dense, amorphous, constantly shifting world to get lost in rather a scarred, barren landscape to traverse.

Where For Emma seemed sprung straight from a agonized soul, Bon Iver feels the work of an becalmed, drifting, almost sub-conscious mind.

And it's the extremely intuitive nature of this album that is the source of both its highest highs and lowest lows, of which there are plenty of both.

Musically, Vernon seems to be playing with two recent sub-genres he's been exposed to through his many collaborations of the last few years.

The first stylistic foray, which makes up about two-thirds of the album's material, is to take songs somewhat similar in initial feel to those of For Emma, but then adorn them in rich, over-instrumented, multi-part arrangements ala art-rock/beard-folk contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, The Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River, Animal Collective and The National.  As big a stylistic leap as this is from For Emma's spare acoustics, all of this album's best material...Perth, Holocene, Towers, MichicantCalgary...fall into this category.

They second, much less satisfying foray is a continuation of Vernon's experimental R&B collaborations with Kanye West, James Blake, and most significantly, Gayngs.  At times the album effortlessly intermingles these two approaches as well, but trends more and more towards the experimental R&B as it progresses, until by album's end, with Lisbon, OH and Beth/Rest, we're into lame-oh 80s soft-soul territory so gooey and mushy and MTV it would have felt right at home on the Top Gun soundtrack.

But where things really break down on Bon Iver is with the mix.

It's undoubtedly been a very heady ride for Vernon over the last few years, with the success of For Emma and all the celebrated, high profile collaborations, but in also taking on the bulk of the production responsibilities here, he's bitten of more than he can chew and done the album a real disservice.

The drums play flat and tinny, the phased guitars sound shrill and break unintentionally into the red, and despite the obvious goal of conveying a dreamlike state, the overall mix still feels unnecessarily incoherent and muddy.  Nowhere are the mixing issues more obvious than on Calgary, which should easily be the album's best song, but because of its mix, feels just middle of the pack.

So in the end, an inconclusive review.  I've settled on a high ranking solid recommend, but in truth, my feelings towards the album have varied dramatically listen to listen, though I have always liked the first half better than the second.

But I do think it is an album most listeners should pick up, and here's why...

Through it's first eight songs, Bon Iver's Bon Iver may be the first rock and roll release that is genuinely of this century.

It's as if Vernon has taken the work of all the other contemporary artists I've mentioned above (most of whom have been clearly influenced by artists from 60s, 70s, and 80s), thrown all that work into a blender, and then strained all the older influences out, so that only the modern, post-2000 sensibilities remain.

Food for thought as you fall into this unusual and flawed but very significant work.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Pickers Best Bets: Perth, Holocene, Towers, Calgary.

Here's the official video for Grammy nominee Holocene, which does a very nice job capturing the sense of expansive, dreamlike wonder the album conveys as a whole.

Component Breakdown:
1. Perth - 8
2. Minnesota, WI - 8
3. Holocene - 9
4. Towers - 9
5. Michicant - 8
6. Hinnon, TX - 7
7. Wash. - 7
8. Calgary - 8
9. Lisbon, OH - 5
10. Beth/rest - 5
Intangibles - Average.

No comments: