Review Summary: Your standard indie-folk fare from a collective of musical minds that is capable of so much more.
Any time a band is introduced as a so-called “supergroup”, bells and whistles go off in my head. While each instance varies, these bands tend to play it irritatingly safe – and you don’t need to venture far back on the musical timeline to find Boygenius or Better Oblivion Community Center standing front-and-center as prime examples. Enter Bonny Light Horseman, a folk singer-songwriter outfit comprised of Josh Kaufman (The National, Hiss Golden Messenger), Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and Anais Mitchell – not to mention a cameo from Justin Vernon. The group resides comfortably in their indie-folk niche, while occasionally leaning into country, but the end result is yet another pleasant, unremarkable outing that reaffirms the notion that indie/folk does not need more supergroups – it needs more innovators.
To be fair though, Bonny Light Horseman
plays its shtick particularly well. Mitchell’s voice is ideal for the folksy, rural vibe that this band’s debut aspires to and for the most part reaches. The best moments come when she retains the lead role, such as the emotionally swelling refrain of the title track (which blends historical references in a story about a soldier who will not return home from war) and the sweet, sprightly verses of ‘Jane Jane’. In addition to her strong performance, there is melodic counterbalancing throughout – at its best delivering gems like ‘Deep In Love’ (where Johnson takes the reins vocally and excels) and at its worst recalling the cheesy give-and-take of a more streamlined band such as Of Monsters and Men. Vocals are the chief platform upon which this entire piece operates, so it’s vital for listeners to connect with them. The instrumentation is sparse and minimal, allowing for little more than the persistent drone of acoustic picking and the occasional brass accent. Aesthetically, it sounds very much like a National/Bon Iver offshoot – and since that’s essentially what it is, it should play well to its target fan base while delivering few surprises.
The problem with Bonny Light Horseman
, aside from its predictability, is how lifeless the songs feel in general. Granted, if you look at the cast of musicians, no one should be expecting an extremely uptempo affair – but there’s little variation in structure or pace throughout. The songs blend into one another, all floating upon a paper-thin layer of acoustic guitars that rarely delve into anything approaching intricate…let alone complex. Percussion is nearly absent, save for the few flat beats that appear sporadically across the album’s ten songs. It’s a lo-fi affair in terms of production/electronics, which makes sense – but it’s also too polished to qualify for genre-coveted adjectives such as gritty
. It’s merely a collection of sleek sounding ballads from a crew of indie/folk heroes. They can be gorgeous at times with the plethora of vocal talent on display, but otherwise it’s a wash.
In essence, Bonny Light Horseman
delivers what it promises. It’s a highly melodic, well-produced piece of folk music that should resonate well on long drives through the country or nights spent out by the bonfire. It’s vocal-centric, and the vocals are absolutely the
strength of the album – so it’s difficult to fault the band too much for honing in on them. In spite of this, Bonny Light Horseman’s debut does little else to attract listeners, which is disappointing when you consider all of the great musical minds at the table. It seems that rather than investing too much interest into crafting engaging atmospheres or experimental song structures, the band opted to pour all of their time into the harmonies, and then into perfecting those harmonies in the studio. It’s not the worst approach they could have taken, but again, there’s nothing super
about adhering to the virtues of pop – and in turn, Bonny Light Horseman
is a marginally decent record; nothing more.