This is my review after a few listens of the new Bon Iver album last night - I'm hoping time will change my mind. It's up and down on youtube at the moment so be quick to catch it.
So, a day after the new Bon Iver song is released, the full album has leaked and Justin, I think we have a problem. Did you ever have a favourite shirt that had a stain on it that just ruined it? That’s how I feel about this album because on first listen I was really enjoying it until the final track when the heavens unleashed a torrent of clusterfuck. The final track, Beth/Rest, re-frames everything that came before it and makes the album considerably worse. (Katie has already discussed this track extensively here.)
How so? Well, in my review of Calgary, I mentioned that atmospheric indie tracks occasionally come off sounding like low-fi recreations of In the air tonight. Yes, I mean Phil Collins. Beth/Rest takes those 80’s idioms that made Phil a super star and revels in them, flaunts them and beats you with them. Richard Marx airy keyboards? Why not! 80’s flange guitar? Sure thing! Phil Collins vocal melodies? Bring it! Is that a frickin' clarinet solo? Fuck yeah! This is all undertaken with no irony and it is multiple shades of awful - it is diabolically bad. Seriously, it sounds like track 8 on the St Elmo’s Fire Soundtrack.
How this ruins the rest of the album is that once you listen back to the earlier tracks, you start to hear those influences on every track. Those multi layered vocals that Bon Iver revels in suddenly start to sound like Peter Cetera. Who? Watch the full glory of the Glory of Love here! (UPDATE: Even Rolling Stone agrees with me on the Cetera thing). Wirey guitar lines that seemed understated now sound like they’re from the best Hall and Oates track you never heard. Everything sounds different and to be honest, much worse.
If I can put it another way: this is an M. Knight Shyamalan-like album. However, instead of finding out that the lame twist ending is that it’s the planet killing people or the village is in the modern day, you find out the record is a love letter to the worst 80’s pop music you ever heard. You couldn’t really hear it on first listen but now you know the ending, you can’t hear anything else.
Now that I’ve done my hysterical-hyperbolic overreaction to that song, I can say that if you can get past these elements, there is some joy to be found here. The low key meditation of Wash. is peculiarly beautiful and when slide guitars shimmer towards the end of the track, it elevates into something special. I think Holocene is probably the strongest track here, just because it belies it’s environment and aches in a way that only Bon Iver at their best can. Minnesota, WI, with its unexpected use of horns, works just because it shouldn’t.
My favourite Bon Iver song is Brackett, W9 off the Dark Was The Night compilation. It is a song that has the full band sound as opposed to For Emma, Forever Ago solo vibe and I was looking forward to the new album to see how the band sound would play out. For me, it didn’t work and Beth/Rest has placed the album into a context that makes it hard to listen to. I imagine this record will receive knee-jerk universal critical acclaim (go on, Pitchfork, give it 8.3) but listen to that song and tell me if you can take it seriously. This is an album I wanted to love but I’m sorry Justin, I think you need to get back to his cabin and take a good long hard look at yourself.