I’m a pretty pretentious guy and I make it my business to keep up with the latest thinkpiece-generating pop cultural artefacts whirring their way around the internet. Being the hipster I am, I have a natural affinity for the raw, lush indie folk of Bon Iver and made it my mission to inform everyone in earshot that I had been listening to Justin Vernon before he was cool as the group’s second album blew up in 2012.
The two Bon Iver albums, the Eps and frontman Justin Vernon’s work in other bands and groups comprises some of my very favourite music and the hushed folk of Bon Iver’s debut as well as the rich baroque of their self-titled album has hewn itself into some of my most treasured memories as a layered soundtrack to warm summer evenings and the cool autumn breeze.
But I’m not so sure about Bon Iver’s much hyped new album, ‘22, A Million‘, to be released at the end of next month.
I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the past number of months as rumours began to grown that Justin Vernon would soon announce Bon Iver’s first album since the group went on hiatus in 2012. Their were odd murals and cryptic Instagram posts but the long wait to hear new, in-studio Bon Iver tracks ended yesterday with the release of the first two tracks from the new album. I clicked the link to the youtube video with a flutter in my heart.
“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄*”
The title struck me as odd and I raised an eyebrow, but I felt confident that it was merely a little Justin Vernon eccentricity. Then I listened to the track. Percussion that sounded like someone taking a rolling pin to a box of Rice Krispies? A vocal line so halting it never coheres into the kind of adaptive rhythm that really makes Vernon’s fantastic voice shine? Vernon’s experiments in autotune pushed from dabbling and interesting accompaniment to main stage irritant.
The entire thing was a disorganised chaotic mess that seemed to have veered far from the Bon Iver I know and I love. I continued to listen as well as read up about the album and my horror only continued to grow.
Vernon’s music has often been introspective and tortured. This was most notable in the first album where the “recorded in a cabin in the woods” background achieved almost mythological character in the indie community. For the self-titled album we were amazed to see the sensitive folk troubadour put out a mullet-and-synth power ballad with “Beth/Rest”, but that track and that album seemed animated by the same spirit and power as the first album, merely more richly ornamented. Vernon’s lyrics didn’t always have the literary quality of other indie folk favourites like the Mountain Goats or the Decemberists, but his raw and emotive singing style gave special resonance and weight to words chosen more likely for their prosody than their poesy.
But these qualities seemed to be flagging in these new songs. His early experiments with autotune, sampling and more electronic tones- like on “Woods” or his work with Volcano Choir- showed clear thematic and stylistic purpose. Here all these things- once charming and entertaining affects- have served to make the music not just less accessible but also just plain less interesting to listen to. This is music which lacks the clear anchor point of his other work and which can at times feel like a chore to listen to, more a laboratory experiment in style than a substantial piece of emotional art.
The feeling of underlying gravitas in Vernon’s lyrics seems to have fled. His vocally distorted voice crunches out the neologism “Fuckified” on a track. It hangs there in the air, bereft of the kind of desperate, folksy charm of his early work and just seeming altogether a little embarrassing, like listening to someone slur bad poetry into a karaoke microphone. The album cover, murals and assorted information on the album’s inspiration, seems to invert the previous Bon Iver pattern of simplicity concealing fascinating depths. The album cover is, like the songs themselves, busy and chaotic. It is covered in arcane symbols scattered seemingly at random and it gives the impression not of some concealed aesthetic system but of what the Google image search for “I’m 14 and read the wikipedia articles on occultism and existentialism” would look like.
I love Bon Iver and Justin Vernon and I always enjoy when an artist I like takes their work in a brave new direction. When, with ‘Age of Adz’, Sufjan Stevens moved from Baroque folk to electronica I followed him on the journey and enjoyed where I went. Dylan’s electric work represents my favourite work from my favourite musical artist of all time. But Sufjan kept the heart and soul of his previous work with him as he changed and Dylan always had a little “Blowin in the Wind” in his heart after he plugged in. But I don’t know if, from what I’ve heard, the genius of Bon Iver will be recognisable beneath the samples, the symbols and the autotune when this new album comes out in September.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: The actual symbols in the title don’t play kindly with the website, hence the boxes instead.