sat 24/10/2020

CD: Bon Iver - Bon Iver | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Bon Iver - Bon Iver

CD: Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Log-cabin man is now sonically richer but less engaging

Well, he’s certainly moved on from his log cabin. It’s three years since Justin Vernon’s group, Bon Iver, released For Emma, Forever Ago, the quietly powerful indie-folk album recorded during a bitter winter in his father’s remote Vermont cabin – an album that became almost as famous for the story behind it as it did for its actual music. Now Bon Iver’s palette has been broadened to incorporate instruments such as synths and a glossier, more layered approach to sound; the result is an album that’s sonically rich but seldom really engaging.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Vernon seems to prefer to hide behind his multitracked, tightly harmonised, high-register vocals, a process that has a “blanding”, distancing effect on the songs’ emotional content – it all ends up sounding a bit sad, a bit sweet, but never much more than that. Why is he so afraid of exposing himself? There’s a video of him singing “Skinny Love” on his own on Later… with Jools Holland (see video below) and it’s heartbreakingly raw; here, though, all is smooth and glossy, with only some little details in the fringes – a burble of clarinet here, some vaguely discordant guitars there – to send ripples across the pond.

And too many of the songs themselves lack strength of purpose and melodic power; repeated listenings yield few dividends. Some tracks do stand out: “Holocene” is sweet and melodic, while “Calgary” has an epic quality, a crescendo that steadily accrues substance and impact. But what was he thinking of when he recorded the closing song, “Beth/Rest”? The keyboards are hideously cheesy, the drums sound dull, thuddy and mechanical, while Vernon’s voice is heavily treated with what sounds like Autotune. A guitar howls; a steel guitar simpers. It sounds like the theme tune to a forgotten straight-to-video movie from the 1980s. A strange end to a patchy and disappointing album.

Overleaf: Bon Iver sings "Skinny Love" on Later... with Jools Holland

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