Published on June 23rd, 2011 | by Marky Hladish5
GUEST REVIEW: Bon Iver, “Bon Iver” by Marky Hladish
I’m not a music reviewer. That being said, I have somehow slipped into the weighty task of putting together a write up for the folks at Sock Monkey Sound of one of the most talked about and highly anticipated releases of the year, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver. No big deal, right? Right.
The problem is that I am simply not going to be able to turn in the typical, point by point, impartial album review that the Sock Monkey Execs (and you, the reader) are probably expecting. I’m about as biased as it gets towards this album. Let me elaborate: I myself am a (working) musician and the notion of music as an art form being an ideal by which to live one’s life is woven into the fabric of my… well, everything. Furthermore, the music that Justin Vernon as Bon Iver has been making for the last three or four years is something that I may or may not be unabashedly and wholeheartedly enchanted with (I know I sound like a Bronte character. Deal.) and I already hold his art in high regard as it is. So, attempting to separate myself from said art and assign it a nebulous rating based solely on your subscription to the validity of my opinion would just come across as disingenuous in the end. And who wants that?
In all honesty asking me to give a review of Bon Iver’s Bon Iver is a bad idea, unless you’re looking for something with as much clear headed, critical validity as an enthusiastic fangirl’s homemade Bedazzledâ„¢ Beiber tshirt. It would be akin to me asking you to provide a review of your favorite color. If I had a brother, I wouldn’t be able to give you an informative review of his newborn baby either. I would just say look at his fat, beautiful face! and of course I wouldn’t be able to tell you why exactly it was beautiful. It just would be. My reviewing Bon Iver’s newest baby would more than likely suffer the same inevitable result. The words would be filtered through their own need to fill the page and they wouldn’t carry any actual weight, which would be an ironic and unfortunate way to discuss an album this rich. My review wouldn’t be worth the time it took to read it. Not to mention a million other blog-zine-music-important-site-places are going to run their own version of that same type of review anyway.
So rather than doing any of that, I’m going to engage in a one sided conversation directed at you about not what this album sounds like, but what this album does. Particularly, what this album does to me, a jaded and cynical 29 year old sometimes music lover. I’ll let you know right off the bat that I believe that this collection of songs is something important. These are songs that have substance without pretense, lent to us by a guy who’s making music for himself first rather than for a round table of record label suits. This is music composed and destined for those who are active participants in experiencing, more so than merely hearing what comes from their speakers and headphones (and that implies a place of humble appreciation rather than posturing elitism). This is an album that is meant to be felt.
Too cheesy? Ok. Well, normally I would get over myself and say Yeah, you’re right. I’m probably freshening the room a bit much. But hell, you know what? I’ve been waiting to feel like this about an album for most of my adult life. So, like I did last weekend at my good friend’s casino bachelor party, I’m putting all my chips down on this one. This album deserves any and all lofty, head in the clouds, euphoric comparisons to magical sunbeams that I can come up with. I’m going to say right here that this album may be one of the more important things to happen to popular music in a good long while and the fact that it is receiving mainstream success is indicative of an impending and long overdue culture shift.
Sometimes it takes years for an album to reveal how much it will mean to you personally, and then other times you just instantly know. Midway through the first listen of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (somewhere around Michicant) I knew that it would forever be one of the albums I define myself by. It was immediately familiar to me, as if it had unfolded from my subconscious like something I had been listening to for years. You sink into this album. It’s a bed, pillow and comforter of palpable texture and layers, as thick as a phonebook (google it, kids) and as warm and inviting as whiskey on Christmas. It is simple in design: Make something that matters; Make something that’s genuine; Make it because you want to and not because it will sell; Do it because it sounds good, and not because it sounds right. Yet it is complex in execution: Atmosphere and mood are more important than song length; The way the words sound next to each other is more important than what they mean. No mixture of instrumentation is out of bounds, experimentation is as crucial as song structure. This album means it.
Putting aside the conventional rules of popular songwriting in favor of something else has always been what Justin Vernon does best, but it’s honed to an absolute perfection on Bon Iver, exemplified in songs like Minnesota, WI and the beautifully resolute Wash, a song with no chorus, no verse, just a couple repeating piano chords, a few whispery textural percussion noises and some earthy string swells held together by Vernon’s unmistakable falsetto. It’s something that is so stupidly brilliant that it makes me say, why don’t more people do this?. I think the reason is because it takes a certain level of comfortability with yourself and your songs to allow them to potentially be disliked. From an outside perspective, there’s nothing accessible about this album. It’s mostly experimental in nature. Sonically it eschews any semblance of normal pop production caveats in lieu of painting warm soundscapes. Lyrically, Vernon has taken an admirable dive off into the vague, crafting beautifully abstract pictures for us to interpret:
ramble in the roots, had the marvel, moved the proof be kneeled fine’s glowing
storing up the clues, it had is sullen blue bruised through by showing
from Minnesota, WI
All of that to say that this album is doing something right now, for all of us, whether you want it to or not. Justin Vernon has taken the spotlight he’s been thrust into and he’s using it to deliver a genuinely artistic work to a mainstream audience that has desperately been in need of a saviour. Whether or not you enjoy the actual sound he is offering up, there are no contrivances here. This is pure expression, untampered with, and when is the last time you’ve seen that on national TV? Of course the rocket ride of success that Bon Iver has been on could be attributed to Vernon being the poster child for the next wave of pop culture trend latching (the indie-atmos-folk movement of the 2000-teens?), but I truthfully think it has way more to do with the genuine soul that emanates from every single note he plays and the response that it generates when you come in contact with it. It resonates with people as opposed to hitting a demographic.
Bon Iver as a whole is music that is made because Justin Vernon knows no better than to make something that matters. Shouldn’t that be what we all aspire to do with our time here… make something that matters? This album matters, and not just to me. Simply put, this album will be remembered