What a difference a year makes. I was wholly unimpressed by Bon Iver when I first heard it a year ago. In fact, when I wrote about Bon Iver‘s first/breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago for my favorite albums list, I said this at the end:
Bon Iver’s self-titled follow-up was released in 2011, and I bought it on sale on iTunes recently and was actually quite disappointed. I thought it was the definition of a mixed bag. [Bon Iver frontman] Justin Vernon leaves behind the spare sound of For Emma, Forever Ago for a suffocating, over-produced sound that undermines the beauty and majesty of it, which is a shame, since Vernon is clearly a real talent and there’s a lot to like on Bon Iver.
It just goes to show how first impressions don’t mean jack when evaluating art. Ordinarily, I would most likely have just not listened to this album any further, leaving it to gather dust in the corner of my iTunes library. But I kept listening to it. And listening to it. I figured, “Hey, I actually spent money on this, so I might as well listen to it.” And while it took a fairly long time to come around on Bon Iver, it’s been worth it. I actually think Bon Iver could be considered one of the best albums of the entire decade when all is said and done. Time will tell, of course, whether Bon Iver‘s curious mixture of acoustic folk, clean electric guitar and lightly processed faux ’80s synthesizers will hold up, but my bet is it will. The first time I listened to this album, all I could focus on was the production, which at first is so strikingly different from the sonics of For Emma, Forever Ago it’s startling.
But with each run through the album, the pieces start falling into place. All of these songs are densely layered, with impossibly gentle guitar work, tender falsetto vocal harmonies, and subtle sound effects. It’s actually kind of funny, know that I think about it, but aside from a few brief moments of clarity, I can’t make out the lyrics at all throughout the entire album, really. Which is just as well, surprisingly. I haven’t gone online — at least, not yet — to look up the lyrics, but given the album’s landscape feel, it’s fitting that Vernon‘s walls of harmonized vocals tend to blow through each track like breaths of wind. The truth is, Bon Iver is so impressionistic that it almost doesn’t matter what the lyrics actually are. You may think what I have just said is absolutely crazy, but what draws me to this album isn’t the particulars of the lyrics. As I said above, I haven’t even really tried to figure out what they are, much less what they mean. Bon Iver is more of a mood piece, subtly shifting via alterations in texture from song to song.
I can remember finding the last track, “Beth/Rest,” absolutely laughable when I first listened to it, thinking it sounded like a bad ’80s outtake. But even that track, which is still probably my least favorite, has started to make a lot more sense after listening to the entire album numerous times. Bon Iver reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a war movie that uses large doses of voice over from numerous characters, who are usually sharing heavy, human condition-weary sentiments in mumbled, hard-to-understand-but-nonetheless-poetic language. Whenever I have watched the movie, I have been sorely tempted to turn on the subtitles, but have resisted, since I sense the point of the experience is to evaluate how the voice overs make you feel during their delivery, not to try to interpret them on the fly.
For now, I’m going to apply the same strategy to Bon Iver. Perhaps further along in the process I will feel compelled to look up the lyrics, but I certainly don’t feel that way now. As it stands at this point in time, Bon Iver is one of the most rewarding albums of the new decade, and one of my favorites, for sure.