Bear in mind: this is the first Bon Iver album I’ve heard in full. I’ve given one or two Emma tracks a listen (especially “Flume”), but no further. So I’d known about the falsetto style, without building up too much expectation of follow-up consistency (and/or disappointment) with the difficult second album. Usually I get bugged by whole albums sung in falsetto, but not here. And I’ve got the gist that Emma is acoustic to Bon Iver’s electric-eclectic. But also, I’m not setting out to defend it per se; nor am I gunning a personal view in the swampy relativism of subjective resonance. What I hear is what I hear.
“Perth” was the first track I’d cued up and didn’t process the rest for a good while. I remember the odd structure of the song: unstandard. With a nice guitar refrain, the horns etc. See an earlier note about electric guitars and song structure in the post-rock vein (detail: Mogwai). How difficult it can be to come up with interesting song formats using electric guitar chords & sounds, the usual familiar structures. “Perth” is a leftfield piece of interesting. At the time I thought: better than the usual Pitchfork hay.
I do think the album deserves an award for its mix. The overlaid vocals, yes; but also the sonic detail and colour, the rounded sense of depth. Banjos and steel guitar, fuzzed low guitar on track #2. The bee-buzz of saxes on “Holocene” (track #2). The tremolo piano on “Hinnom” (track #6). And reverse echo effects on “Wash” (track #7). Yet it’s a very gentle holistic mix.
The album’s sound is its strongest suit methinks; and also its consistency to that sound-frame. I can hear how much work went into it (especially vocal overdubs and mixing), the collaborations etc, but to me it doesn’t sound encumbered or overcrowded. Not every richly-worked and -elaborated album garners automatic respect in a listener. I still hear the work of careful choices being made.
But did you notice there’s no bass on the album? Well – baritone guitar here and there, but not the usual trio arrangement of guitars drums bass. Notice how the songs don’t really need standard old bass. But the mix is what makes me want to get this on CD so I can hear it in full stereo. I’m a big believer in the power of the mix.
There aren’t many radio-friendly melodies here; nor is it a glorified solo album. It’s a different beast.
It definitely feels like a meaningful album, of a kind. I had a realisation (listening in the car, in rainy slow traffic) that a songwriter’s job is to marry feeling to music. Or to work some magic so the feel causes the structure to melt away (feel over chords). Now, many if not all of the lyrics on Bon Iver don’t seem to stick or penetrate, but I can’t say they lack feeling or vibe. I don’t mind the lyric floatiness; I’m not expecting “Dylanesque” depth on this. That said, playing in the car, the words become falsetto sounds and melodies – except for the phrase “shoulder blades” (from “Calgary”) which sticks out at an odd angle. We now call it the ‘shoulder blade song’.
That said, I haven’t read the lyrics too closely. I suspect they’re a marriage of creative writing exercises to song-feels. Let’s take some random snips; this from “Holocene”:
Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.
Above my brother, I and tangled spines.
We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be.
Now to know it my memory.
Or this from “Towers”:
For the love, comes the burning young
From the liver, sweating through your tongue
Well, you're standing on my sternum don't you climb down darling
Oh the sermons are the first to rest
Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed
Out the hollows where the swallow nests.
To me these are personal scrapbookings. I suspect they’re more related to memories and local-specific associations than to lyric truths that must out. You can find more speculation on the latter song here.
From my initial listens and cursory checks, there’s no clear sense of what these songs are about. But the album does seem to navigate a direction or focus on intimacy and homeliness, some inner terrain or past. A raftered melancholy? A sound of place perhaps. And yes, the album does sound fantastic on a gray prolonged Sunday morning drive*. It’s a good wintry album**.
“Calgary” (track #8) is a strong point – even if it is heavy on keys and overdubs. This track would also work acoustic-only, I think. But again, as with “Perth” – what structure is he following here? I haven’t pulled out the guitar and applied myself to finding out – but the structure sounds purely musical rather than chord chord chord familiar. Which is a good thing; it makes for interesting.
“Beth/Rest” (track #10) – yes, perhaps an unfortunate choice in keys as they dial up 80s frequencies. Or maybe this track is a personal reference, a reverential tuning into 80s youth or past subjectives. Sonically, it doesn’t sound out of place at all – the same mix colours, even down to the steel guitar. I know a few similar/ballpark tracks to this, with flutes and keys and lead guitar fills; and I was put in mind of Peter Tosh’s “Fools Die” in particular, strangely; which is also an album closer. Also, my version of the album ends with a different mix of “Calgary”, so the 80s episode isn’t the closer, which might be why it sounds aggravating or deliberately daft to some.
I wouldn’t say every track is a winner, but each has at least some interesting detail or sonic figure to mark it. Justin Vernon is a very musical, atypical songwriter. And the mix: the mix feels correct and nuanced to me. I agree or I can hear all the issues people have with the album, but to me it feels right and carefully balanced and well sequenced and emotionally valid, over and above those concerns. Or at least, that’s the view from my particular node of subjective resonance.
* Note: I’m not someone who believes all albums sound better in cars or on road trips.
** Boom boom.