Review Summary: It’s not a problem that Vernon hasn't created music in the same style of the last successful album: the problem is that he isn’t able to make that creative jump to a new aesthetic, or direction, successfully at all.
“Beth/Rest” fades to its end with its dorky 80s piano and just-so-beachy electric guitar leads, and we're left in awe. Incredibly perplexing awe: Who the hell is Justin Vernon
, we wonder at this point, And what the hell is he thinking?
Some of you may be tinged with a bit of that unfair expectations bug – just like everyone around us is, basically. Because let’s face it: Justin Vernon will forever be in Emma
’s shadow, no matter what he releases in the future. But this confusion we have is beyond just unmet expectations for Bon Iver, Bon Iver
, if you examine it closely. In fact, it goes beyond mere disappointment even. It’s got something Tomboy
-and-The King of Limbs
-y about it, the feeling, something we were afraid we might hear and have to face once again
this year with flag-bearing indie bands and artists. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
could have been released by any
other artist, and the unsettling, upsetting feeling would still be the same - the sonic differences of past albums For Emma, Forever Ago
, In Rainbows
, or Person Pitch
aside: the fu
cking album isn’t saying anything.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
is just too vague. And the answer to why this has happened, or at least in part, can be found in Vernon’s own words leading up to this album’s release: ”I brought in a lot of people to change my voice,” he told Rolling Stone
back in March. “I built the record myself, but I allowed those people to come in and change the scene.” The part where he says that he “allowed those people to come in and change the scene” should scare the hell out of you if you are a fan of Vernon, but it should also puzzle you if you happen to know next to nothing about the songwriter as well: quite frankly, why would anyone mask their creative identity to the point where the work underneath is changed, masked? It doesn’t make sense. And Bon Iver, Bon Iver
, in the end, just doesn’t add up to something positive and wholly moving because of it, both in its instrumental and lyrical aspects.
Vernon and his crew go about painting ambiguous pictures of places in the U.S. such as Ohio and Wisconsin throughout Bon Iver, Bon Iver
over warming vocal melodies; but there’s just not much to truly connect with, much less last you as a listener in the long run. Even the strongest song on display, “Holocene”, narrows down to being just a pretty yet incomplete lyrical statement, cloudy reveries and a declarative vision voiced without motivation: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent / High above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance, thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles,” Vernon swoons in the chorus. It's pretty imagery, sure, but it doesn't come together in any specific way, and it really doesn't even hint at an intended one either. The song is partly redeemed by its downplayed instrumental element that doesn’t get in the way of Vernon, however; drummer S. Carey achieves the perfect role of the subtle, complimentary player here, leaving Vernon in the position to best deliver with his vocals and guitar playing without being flooded by the rest of the often-cluttered band.
The only problem is that Vernon doesn’t deliver on “Holocene” when he truly could have, and he’s not really given much of a chance elsewhere with the overbearing feel during the rest of the crowded album. “Minnesota, WI” and the absolutely horrible aforementioned closer, “Beth/Rest”, are the main examples of this, the prior instrumentally drowning Vernon’s tale of obscured fortitude and, once again, puzzling imagery that's more meaningful to the artist, rather those listening in attention. The saxophone of Colin Stetson is a nice thought, though, but its implementation just adds more to the problem instead of expanding the song in a natural way. After a distant memory of Vernon's childhood in “Michicant”, Bon Iver lose themselves, and the rest of us, again, in “Hinnom, TX” with its echoing, ghostly vocal effects and a transparent and pointless use of reverb and ambiance. In this tribute to Texas, Vernon puzzles about and baffles along with mysterious and incomplete statements: “Sand it starts to steal / Dirt and ice imbed in cheeks in the potter’s field / Solar peace / Well it swirls and sweeps / You just set it.” What the hell is that supposed to mean, exactly?
You may be tempted to give Bon Iver, Bon Iver
too much of a chance, as odd as that may sound. It’s a pretty-sounding album initially, after all, and the ambiguity of Vernon’s lyrics suggests that there’s something deeper hiding in its confines, something that must be found with listen after listen. Indeed, it has already been deemed a ‘grower’ by many the very second that they realized that there is no “The Wolves (Acts 1 and 2)” or “Skinny Love” to be found here – that is, anthems to connect to and to return to for listeners. But hear and examine over and over again, if you will, that Vernon is not really saying anything at all on Bon Iver, Bon Iver
, no matter how much you wish he was. And even if he were, this “change the scene” business has left his intent obscured and pushed to the side under the weight of the pointless and distracting instrumental accompaniment of those around him. Like Radiohead
and Panda Bear
before Bon Iver this year, it’s not a problem that Vernon hasn't created music in the same style of the last successful album: the problem is that he isn’t able to make that creative jump to a new aesthetic, or direction, successfully at all. His voice is lost, and he’s trying to write about things that only
he can connect to, all the while leaving us baffled, confused, and just as lost as he sounds on the record to our ears.