Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Album Review: Bon Iver - "Bon Iver, Bon Iver"

I'm midway through Neil Gaiman's American Gods right now, and I just finished a chapter involving a mysterious stranger in a charcoal gray suit. The man's not invisible, but anyone who looks at him immediately forgets anything about him - what he looks like, his name, what he's just said - the moment they look away. Paradoxically, though, he has the ability to implant an idea deep within peoples' subconscious, one that they'll be urged inexorably by even if they can't remember its precise nature.

I kept thinking of him as I listened to Bon Iver's new "semi-eponymous" album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver: the album manages to be utterly elusive and yet completely indelible. Songwriter Justin Vernon writes songs that twist and turn, piling on melodies, harmonies, and unexpected instrumental textures until you can barely remember where the song began.

It also sounds like nothing I've ever heard before, including For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver's first wildly successful record. It is, however, a completely worthy successor.

I remember a friend of mine linking me to a .rar file back in December of 2007. "The whole thing's great," she said, "but skip to 'Skinny Love' and 'Re: Stacks' if you're impatient." It took me a full year to actually absorb the seven other tracks on the album. The thing that actually inspired me to really listen to the thing was a concert by my college's all-male a cappella group. They did a version of "For Emma," the penultimate song on the album. Their version (adapted from a performance Bon Iver recorded for La Blogotheque) lacked the horn section and slide guitar of the original, but the song's sweet melody shone just as brightly.

In their review of James Blake's spectacular self-titled debut, Pitchfork wrote about how the aughts may be the era when "singer-songwriters-- longtime wastrels of pianos and six-strings with three chords-- finally get interesting, manipulating their pretty little voices and best love songs for something more than plain ballads and pleas." Sort through the usual Pitchfork gasbaggery and a real message emerges: the definition of singer-songwriter is expanding, and those singer-songwriters are becoming increasingly brave and inventive.

Vernon certainly loves to manipulate his inimitable voice (check out the breathtaking "Woods" for proof), but where he sets himself apart from the pack is his willingness to bury his melodies under a ton of fuzz. This isn't a new concept for the shoegazers and their fellow noisy popsters, but it's a comparatively new phenomenon for the singer-songwriter.

Mouse Rat?!
The songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver mostly don't deign to recognize anything so "bourgeois" as a verse/chorus/verse structure, but neither are they as shapeless as they first appear. Just as he did on For Emma, Vernon writes simple songs that somehow sound impossibly mysterious. The expansion of his instrumental palette only serves to further disguise his gorgeous melodies, to wondrous effect.

Here, Vernon embraces the soft rock aesthetic his side project Gayngs used to create their sleazy indie pop opuses. But in Vernon's hands alone, the results are as pastoral and serene as his debut, even if the Bon Iver, Bon Iver sounds nothing like that first album. "Perth" utilizes a searing electric guitar line and almost blastbeat drums to startling effect, creating a track that sounds bruising without being threatening. "Hinnom, TX" showcases Vernon's underutilized lower register and pairs it with echoing piano, brief snaps of horns, and a chorus response from his own falsetto. The blogosphere has seized on "Calgary" sounding like Coldplay without the production values, and the song's insistent drums and vaguely holy vocals do echo the more popular band's quieter moments. Still a spectacular track, though.

The most surprising moment on the album, though, might be the cheese-rock opus "Beth/Rest," which closes the album. It's the closest thing Bon Iver's ever come to a power ballad, and despite sounding for all the world like a Tears for Fears b-side, it's an absolutely magnificent song. It's a fitting close to an album that cements Justin Vernon's place as a once in a generation talent, a wholly distinctive musical presence full to bursting with brilliance and left turns. I can't wait to see where he goes next.

Note: For "all" of you Art House readers, don't fret: I'll be back next week with Fritz Lang's M.