BBC Radio first let the Bon Iver/James Blake collaboration “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir” out of its furry, shapeless cage last weekend so, admittedly, commentary on it now is a bit belated. But in a case like this, it’s probably good practice to wait a solid minute before slamming a gavel and deciding between good or bad. Acquainting oneself with a new song, and especially such an experimental one, is a lot like tasting an oddly-colored or spiky or otherwise dubious new food for the first time. There’s a lot to go through: figuring out how to cut it up and place it in; the first contact between tongue and morsel; chewing, swallowing, absorbing the psychological effects of the aftertaste. Maybe you’ll need two, three or six bites before opining. Maybe you’ll know it’s love as soon as taste buds first hit stimulus. Maybe food isn’t this intense to you and this entire metaphor is weird, but that’s the very subject of this post: weirdness.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver wasn’t always strange — at least, not publicly. In 2005, after breaking up with the band that, without him, went on to become freak folk centerfold group Megafaun, Vernon recorded Self-Release, a raw, though mostly subdued preview of his solo songwriting talents.
“Pier 39” from Self-Release:
His voice was full and low and his compositions were sparse and pretty. But for the most part, his songs were predictable and in that way, things made sense. He fit a flanneled, bearded indie mold and if things had gone on this way, he’d have likely become another Dallas Green (or any other of the hordes of similar someones) with a small, but reasonably dedicated fanbase.
But then something either broke, clicked or exploded and Bon Iver was formed. Vernon’s odd image as a Wisconsin-grown mountain man who sings in not the manliest of sweet falsettos took form, endearing him to the indie community and beyond. Kanye practically jumped on him, remember? And now that Bon Iver’s eponymous sophomore masterpiece has showcased everything from the multi-layered lushness of Vernon’s arrangements, to his ability to shine up and reinvigorate the slow-jam electric piano sounds of the ’80s, Vernon has become an established critic darling.
And then this thing happened.
Frankly, I wasn’t very familiar with James Blake before “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir.” I knew he was electronic, British, and, most dangerously, had been called dubstep. Knowing only this vague, amorphous term, though, was as good as saying I pretty much knew nothing and so I quite reasonably bore this in mind as I pressed “play.” Bon Iver is Bon Iver and since they were to be mixed with electronics, I knew to allow for a certain degree of oddity.
The first time I listened to the track all the way through, however, it was over before I realized that I’d stopped paying attention halfway through. I chalked this up as my own fault, restarted it and concentrated on concentrating. Brows furrowed. Veins pulsed. I realized that a second listen was proving only slightly more productive than the first. I could make out abrupt, popping drum noises and owl hoots flashing in then out again before I was really sure I’d heard anything. Vernon’s beautiful, distorted falsetto rose and fell in maddeningly indistinguishable utterances that sounded kind of like, “Dewinn on the peep, turnin’ on the teeth, I’m a talkin’ lockin’ ohhh, I’m a talkin’ lockin’ ohhh! Fuckin’ tappeh loppy ohhh!” The only words I could think to describe it were “brown” and “sort of bumpy.” And there I had it: the song reminded me of a toad.
Concerned, I consulted the blogs. I should like this track. I’ve loved Bon Iver since For Emma, Forever Ago, I was even pro-Beth/Rest. HuffPost Culture and Stereogum loved it, Hipster Runoff (predictably) hated it, and everyone else from NPR to Pitchfork either deftly avoided direct comment or openly expressed confusion. I set up camp in the latter party. What the heck, Bon Iver? It was simply too weird. It had no real chorus, no immediately decipherable words. It had no climax; rather, it was meandering and sort of indulgent. This song was clearly more for the two artists’ enjoyment than the fans.
As always in cases such as these, there were plenty of comments section douchebags who (claimed they) loved it. How spectacularly brilliant, they seemed to tout in British accents. One Stereogum commenter even went so far as to claim that “listening to something this beautiful and intricately crafted can be exhausting, [it] emotionally drains your body and leaves you as a shell of your once former (read:prior to listening to the song) self, without energy, tired and beaten.” The horrid song had actually induced PTSD in this man but tricked him into believing it was the mark of something fabulous. I threw my hands up, counted myself among a minority and moved on. There was no helping these people.
And then came the MTV rant.
Nothing I say here can really encapsulate the general emotion of the thing, so you’ll just have to read it:
“there are great moments in awards shows. bruno mars sounded really good doing ‘valerie’ for amy winehouse. i don’t think anyone is bummed that adele is killing everything. her voice was real and focused when i went thru and watched highlights from tonight. kanye and jay z are always murdering. beyonce is pregnant. yes this is awesome as shit, culturally speaking. but can i just ask, the reader, us, we … as non-rhetorically as possible: don’t we seem dumb? didn’t MTV lose the fight against themselves? Didn’t Rock’n’Roll STOP? Why are the lights so bright? isn’t our talent as artists enough? Why do we try SO hard? Does a moonman mean what it did back then? Should we feel pumped when we get one? Should our mom’s cry? I am not even thinking about it that hard. I will close my eyes in 90 seconds and have total peace… But, seriously. Why are we waving around so much? Why do we NEED this shit so bad? Why don’t we just have MUSIC? DO music? soul? I don’t know. I don’t mean to criticize. Anyone. Actually. Except for MTV. You might have had a very large opportunity to be stabilize your self as a global presence of culture and art about 15 years ago and you fucked the dog. Sorry. Im with my girls on this one. Its becoming increasingly clear as I think about it more and more, that the dollars, if they ARE apart of why you are doing something… they are apart of why you are doing something. that’s fucked to me. that’s the absence of spirit, glue, fabric of what makes us a person. it distracts us from what we could be doing: WORK. on EARTH. Better say this: Forget what I say. If you even read this, you’ll probably say to yourself, who is this ass saying shit? It doesn’t matter what i say. it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. But this one last thought: What would Bill Hicks say?”
Aside from being generally heartbroken at finding that Vernon has only a rudimentary grasp of grammar and punctuation, I hung my head yet again. This poor, great man had officially lost sight of that Tom Cruise fine line where “against the grain” and “cool” became simply “scary, a little.” Didn’t MTV-hating become passé after the ninth grade? I get it, he’s turned off by the spectacle of certain artists being rewarded for exposure and money-making. But I mean, I’m turned off by pro wrestling so I don’t watch that. Too much weird, dammit. What is he, like, trying to get famous or something?
As if my heart couldn’t take enough from him in a matter of nine days, then I caught wind of a solo piano version of Beth/Rest, performed by Vernon on NPR’s World Cafe.
Needless to say, I was frightened. I thought of Lady Gaga’s solo piano version of “Poker Face”:
Which was great for her in a Lady Gaga sort of way. I loved it. But imagining Justin Vernon screeching and screaming and nearly toppling people’s brains over was, well, slightly less appealing. All the weirdness bubbling up inside him was going to burst, I just knew it, drenching us all in green Nickelodeon-style goo as cameras closed in on our collective, open-mouthed “Oh my god” and the dudes behind the cameras laughed their jelly-filled bums off.
But, to my surprise, the song was like nothing I had imagined. It was clean, it was conventional.
It was boring.
Whereas the original Beth/Rest had piled on layer after layer of cheesy ’80s Bruce Hornsby-style balladry, taking it so beyond modern music’s comfort zone that it actually ended up being brilliant, this piano version surgically removed everything that was interesting about the song. I liked all the schmaltz! Why take out the schmaltz, Bon Iver? WHY.
So, all in all, Justin Vernon’s tally for the past two weeks has been first, boring-weird, then outstandingly scary-weird, and then by indulging in his habit of extremity, slicing off too much weird and ending up with just boring. Weird can be good, but in the proper amount. Hopefully Bon Iver catches on soon before someone shaves their head or starts tossing babies around or something.