By now Bon Iver needs little introduction. We all adored their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, and now that their latest effort debuted at #2 on the US Billboard 200, frontman Justin Vernon is a legitimate star. But there’s something I’ve been dying to get off my chest: Bon Iver is not that good.
Let me be clear that I thought For Emma, Forever Ago was a very good record. It was richly textured, and since we know Vernon put it together almost entirely by himself, this tipped us off to the sophistication of his mixing abilities. Combine that with soothing melodies and an adept use of rests and empty spaces, we were left with an album that was gentle, spacious, and often times genuinely sweet.
Fast forward to June and I’m about halfway through Bon Iver when it hits me. This album is obnoxiously overrated. How the hell did this happen? First off, a marketing campaign that included headlining Stephfest Colbchella on June 21 (Colbert Bump!), led to an undeserved amount of exposure. By the time the album dropped, everyone’s expectations were high enough and Vernon delivered well enough that people bought into all the positive reviews. “Pitchfork gave it a 9.5? It must be good.”
And look, I can see why so many people like the album. Much like Emma, its songs evoke a mood exceptionally well. The album paints a richly nostalgic tone, which feels somehow melancholy and optimistic at the same time. The problem is, Vernon’s brushstrokes are all over the album. Emma tiptoed the line between inspired, artful mixing and overproduction. Bands often fill out their sounds over time, so it’s no surprise that Vernon was tempted to mess around with some new techniques and instrumentation, but there was scarcely any room in Vernon’s sound for more complexity. Much like a Spielberg film, Bon Iver succeeds in moving the audience, but only by solicitation, relying on forced, emotionally insincere overproduction. Again, the album is close to being good. A tweak here and some generous editing there would do wonders. But don’t take my word for it, let’s take a closer look.
The album opens with a beautiful guitar line which transitions seamlessly into the vocal melody, but the track is tainted by the rolling snare drum that just won’t quit. The song hits a powerful crescendo before gliding effortlessly into “Minnesota, WI.” Things calm down, and the strumming at the 1:20 mark is a nice touch, but by 2:10 we’re back to a heavy, intrusive pairing of drums and electric guitar. Then on “Holocene” the trilling snare returns, cluttering with horns and and uninspired percussion what would be one of the prettiest tracks. These little details are what make tracks like this one cluttered and melodramatic instead of textured and sincere. The same goes for “Towers,” which suffers from the ambient saxophone and twanging strings that remind me all too much of Mike Mogis’ production and the decline of Bright Eyes.
“Michicant” is my favorite track, the one spot when the glitzy production pays off, building a unique sound easily identifiable as Bon Iver’s own. Yet, what follows is “Hinnom, TX,” the album’s lowest point and the first moment I begin to think “Coldplay.” The echoing piano and vocals combined with the single quivering guitar note every few measures reminds me way too much of X&Y. I get the feeling that the notes are being held longer simply for dramatic effect, not to mention the unnecessary amounts of falsetto. After this, the rest of the album rounds out the Coldplay atmosphere, ending with “Beth/Rest,” a junky, synthy ballad, and a far cry from anything that ever made a Bon Iver track good.
After listening, I’m left with two main thoughts on the orchestration. First, on an album like this, the percussion is crucial, and Vernon makes all the wrong decisions. Second, the saxophone needs to go. Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s a terrific musician, but there is no place for him on this album. Indie artists like Iron & Wine and now Bon Iver need to stop giving him freedom to experiment on their albums.
Despite what it might seem, I do not hate this album. It flows smoothly, Vernon’s harmonies are beautiful, and it builds well at key moments. That said, compared to For Emma, Forever Ago, it sucks pretty hard. After being dragged along for forty minutes, I’m ready to listen to Creature Fear or re:Stacks, anything to remind me why I ever liked Bon Iver in the first place.
– Adam Greenberg