I will admit to being a Bon Iver fanboy. Pretty much everything Justin Vernon touches turns to gold; from his incredible work as Volcano Choir (especially their second album, “Repave”) to his subtle additions on the insanely catchy Kanye West-led “Monster” (warning for those of you who aren’t familiar: it features graphic language).
But back to Bon Iver. I’m still getting into his latest album, “22, A Million” but I’m sure I’ll love it. (Here’s a pretty good review of “22, A Million” in case you’re curious.) This guy just seems to find deep spaces in my mind and create music out of them, using a lexicon I’ve either forgotten or never figured out how to use.
This eery insight reaches a crescendo, however, in the closing track to his sophomore album, “Bon Iver.” Here’s a clip of the video, so you can hear it for yourself; however, I advise that you just listen to the audio, and not watch the video; then read my review and then you can go back and watch the video. I generally really appreciate interesting music videos, but this song is so rich, sonically, that you just have to listen, without being distracted by interesting visuals.
First off, that opening. That keyboard sounds like the closing music of a Very Special Episode of an 80s sitcom. Not sure how you feel about that, but I’m on-board already. The beatbox in the background is a little incongruous, perhaps; but then, this is Justin Vernon. He doesn’t do congruous.
So we’re a couple seconds in, and the vocals start. He’s layered them so that you have no idea what he’s saying, and I find great comfort in that; just as the 80s synth sound is comforting in a raw, emotional way, I’m comforted by his strange, plaintive tenor. If I knew what he was saying, I might disagree with him. I might critique how he frames his stanzas, or his use of metaphor, or something like that. Instead, he forms a mumbly choir of gentle incomprehension. As someone who has a hard time shutting off the analytic part of my brain, I find incomprehension a welcome break from the firehose of information-and-review that each day presents.
So we’re settling in to the pillowy, weird vocals. Then a little electric guitar comes in and, is that what I think it is? Son of a…he brought a saxophone into the studio?? I can’t stand the saxophone. I can’t help feeling that, if I listen to too much saxophone, I’m gonna wind up with a perm and stone-washed jeans with an elastic waistband.
And yet, here, it’s…it fits. It just makes sense. Somehow those reedy zephyrs help to shape the cumulus of the swirling synth and the lightning-flashes of the echoey guitar. The guitar which, by the way, mirrors his vocal lines in way that sounds unrehearsed and intuitive. It reaffirms the idea that his voice is just an instrument, and I never get concerned with the semantic value of a guitar solo. That gently distorted guitar which, like everything else, vibrates with hints of echo, tells us just as much as the lyrics.
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, at around the 2-minute mark, he brings in the steel guitar. The lap steel guitar, you guys. Because why settle for the greatest when you could be the greatestest? I love the lap steel guitar (in fact, all sorts of slide guitar). And that showed up to the party.
I can’t speak intelligently about this song; I can only enthuse. It is a song whose humid gentleness baffles examination; I don’t know how Justin Vernon made it. I’m a musician and I have literally no conception of how someone would go about creating something as beautiful and shapeless as this. But I’m glad that he did.