Album review: Bon Iver, “Bon Iver” (Jagjaguwar)

June 22, 2011

Download Story

Pitchfork is freaking nuts.

Though occasionally I will crack wise about failing to see the merits of most music lacking distortion—or at least a burbling Moog in the background—I truly and deeply love Neil Young, Van Morrison, Nick Drake, and plenty of modern, hirsute, sensitive-soul sons of Thoreau, sitting in the backwoods contemplating true love and the meaning of life while strumming on an acoustic guitar.

You go, Fleet Floxes, Iron and Wine, Midlake, and Band of Horses!

Yet while the handful of those disputing the alleged genius of Justin Vernon on his self-titled second album as Bon Iver—the lusher, more fleshed-out-with-sleepy-session-players follow-up to “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2008)—often dismiss the singer-songwriter as a new millennial James Taylor, that’s way off the mark. Taylor, for all his distasteful, smarmy sentimentality, could occasionally craft a hook, and his music usually was more stripped down than the sounds on this album.

For me, a more apt comparison would be Mike and the Mechanics. (And this from a fan of Mike Rutherford, whose work with the early, pastoral Genesis is an unheralded beard-rock predecessor, but who, like many of the wayward progenitors of ’70s prog, went teddibly, teddibly wrong in the ’80s.) I mean, just listen to that dreadfully cheesy synth kicking around at times on this disc, along with the pedal steel guitar, fussy horns, banjo, and other signifiers of authenticity, decorating the falsetto-driven sweet-nothing mutterings of dreadful tunes such as “Calgary,” “Beth/Rest,” “Perth,” and the inexplicably lauded “Holocene,” all of which make my skin crawl when they’re not lulling me into a befuddled stupor.

“Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright/Above my brother, I and tangled spines,” Vernon sings in the latter. “We smoked the screen to make it what it was to be/Now to know it in my memory/And at once I knew I was not magnificent.”

The only part of that I grok is the last line, and I heartily second it. Not magnificent? You ain’t kidding, brother.

On the four-star scale: .5 STARS

Mike (center), with a few of the Mechanics.