Bon Iver

Band: Bon Iver
Album: Bon Iver
Best song: “Holocene” is the best song on the record, though album opener “Perth” is great.
Worst song: “Wash” is the weakest on a very strong record.

We’re coming up on the time of the year wherein everyone releases their “best of the year” lists. These lists, of course, are nonsense. They seem to always include whatever schlock Wilco has produced in a given year — despite not having released a truly great album since 2002 — and a representative from all of the possible genres of music (save, of course, for metal).

Nevertheless, it’s fun to make lists and it’s fun to having something about which to argue. No one cares what my favorite album of the year was and I’d be all too hastey in asserting that 2011 wasn’t a great year for records (note: it wasn’t). I tend to not see these things in the long haul; I make a quick reaction because blogging isn’t my life and I’m kind of a terrible writer and many many other reasons. For example: We’re coming up on Oscar season and I have movies to see.

(Notably, I just read Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and it has thrown me into a mini existential crisis about the state of the world. It’s a truly upsetting read. I don’t think Strauss intended this.)

This is all a roundabout way of referencing Paste Magazine’s selection of Bon Iver’s self-titled album as the best of the year. The amazing hockey writer Ryan Lambert — who also writes about music sometimes, though he and I disagree on those things — said, of the rating “how on earth is bon iver bon iver the no.1 album of the year. it’s not even the best bon iver record.” This, of course, is improper logic. Wish You Were Here was the best album of 1975, but it’s hardly the best album of the band’s career (ditto for OK Computer being the best album of its year, while In Rainbows is my favored Radiohead album).

This is all to say that I don’t think Bon Iver is the best album of 2011, but I’ve already written about my two favorite albums of this year a few weeks ago and earlier last week (spoiler alert, it was Chelsea Wolfe’s Ἀποκάλυψις and PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake). Take this for what it’s worth considering I’m making a hastey snap judgement, but 2011 seems wildly disappointing, in terms of records. Radiohead’s King of Limbs wasn’t much and certainly lost its bearings in regards to the band’s previous output. Mastodon’s new record is the proverbial letdown record, though still fun as hell and a joy to see done live (well, some of the songs). Tha Carter IV was complete dreck and Drake’s album is being praised simply for being some sort of poorly done and ineffectual sing/rap copy of a Kanye West record. Watch the Throne was well-done, though short in memory and nothing compared to Kanye West’s last record (more on that below). A bunch of magazines will try to talk about Lady GaGa or Adele or whatever. The PJ Harvey record was sublime. That’s all fine, but they’re not the best records of the year. People like the Washed Out record, but I don’t like Air France copies that much. The Fleet Foxes record was pretty amazing and it touched me, but that’s one of the few I loved this year.

Which brings us to Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s star has never been higher with his inclusion on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

(It should be noted that I cannot write or talk about that album in a reasonable way. It is among my favorite albums. I wanted to write about it on this site, but I already sound like a fawning idiot for a lot of records and to completely digest a record like that, I’d have to completely submit to my idiocy. No thanks. Just take it from me: If you don’t like that album, I don’t want to know you.)

I don’t know if Vernon’s songwriting changed because of his working with West; Bon Iver is certainly more produced than both the first Bon Iver record (not hard to do) and the Volcano Choir record. Dotted with pianos, pedal steel, bass sax, reverb and a lot of the Bon Iver-whispery vocals. The falsetto is there, but in a seemingly smaller context.

Largely cited in the record’s reviews and fan reactions, the Bruce Hornsby-esque keyboards on the record are a departure from the band’s first record, but are welcome. “Calgary” has a early 1990s feel, though sounds better than I remember my youth sounding. “Best/Rest” does, really, sound like it could come off A Night on the Town.

I was going through a particularly tough period when I picked up Bon Iver around its release in June. As is the way with depression, I often wasn’t able to find a source/figure out a road out of said feelings and my rut were largely compounded by some personal stuff and a pretty hectic work schedule.

The irony of the experience of the record, though, is its atmosphere as compared to the first Bon Iver record. For Emma, Forever Ago is a record written largely about a breakup, a bloodletting of sadness written largely in isolation. It’s a musical tribute to hurt feelings in many ways. Bon Iver was written at the height of Vernon’s success and is hardly a study in melancholy. But, for me, they flipped. Maybe it’s the upbeat nature of For Emma, Forever Ago — and specifically “Flume” and “For Emma” — as compared to Bon Iver lead single “Calgary.” Or maybe it’s simply the place in my life. But, overwhelmingly, I look to Bon Iver and sulk. I look to For Emma, Forever Ago when I don’t need to sulk.

This, of course, speaks to the nature of arrangements against the lyrics of a song or where the artist is coming from. I have no idea of the nature of the intentions of Bon Iver. I don’t know if Vernon and company wanted to garner a feeling of loneliness on For Emma, Forever Ago, though the lyrics certainly speak to that.

It’s all a place of where one is at a time. I’ve mentioned this before, but so much of our experience of culture is based on where we are in our lives, at the time. There is no, for example, critical or fan consensus as to the best Death Cab for Cutie album. But, in my own mind there is only one great, wonderful DCFC album and that’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and that’s because I was going through a breakup when it came out.

Bon Iver is a wonderful record. It’s affecting and I have no real issue with a bunch of places naming it best record of the year. But, it’s not. Ἀποκάλυψις and Let England Shake are.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

    You can contact me at rjgianfortune at gmail dot com.

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