I know that top 5 season has come and gone much like the cold and flu
season, but I caught the tail end of it, so now I can release my
version. You’ll notice a distinct lack of a worst list, this is by
design. I’d rather elevate albums I discovered this year that I
liked because, let’s face it, sometimes your album of the year is
the one you find not the one that was released. All of these might
not have a review, so you can consider these rapid fire reviews. 1-2
sentences, highlights, who did this, and why I liked it. Let’s go.
Top 5 of 2019
5. Xiu Xiu – Girl with Basket of Fruit
One of the most
twisted albums of this year. Nothing about this album is pretty, but
its message rings true even today. Mary Turner Mary Turner turned me
Antifascist and Antiracist.
4. Slauson Malone – A Quiet Fairwell 2016 – 2018
The Marsalis family
does it yet again with this fascinating tribute to sample based hip
hop, glitch, field recordings, and lo-fi hip hop. I can’t wait to
see what Jasper does next.
3. Tyler the Creator – Igor
One of the most
interesting breakup albums I have ever heard, mostly because I didn’t
initially gather that it was a breakup album. One of Tyler’s most
commercial releases, and one that seems to project a new direction
for the man. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
2. Charli XCX – Charli
At this point, Boom
Clap seems like a distant memory for everyone’s favorite Lorde
clone. This album is poppy, yes, but also totally unmarketable, and
it achieves this by polishing its pop sensibilities to a mirror
shine, and from there just continuing. The result is an album that feels like the 80′s never ended, and the dystopic future is shiny and chrome. Give it a shot.
1. Clipping – There Existed an Addiction to Blood
Personally, I feel
that the album of the year not because it is flawless, or the most
technically proficient, but simply because I personally enjoyed it
the most. Daveed Digs has a talent for writing songs that just get
lodged in your head and never get out. The horror sensibilities give this album a lyrical and storytelling edge that very few hip hop albums have.
Top 5 I discovered
5. Klaatu – 3:47 EST
This one came out
of left field to me. I’ve heard this band was mistaken for The
Beatles back in 1976 and I can definitely see why, but for the first
time I don’t mind the blatant derivative nature of this album.
It’s still very lush, pretty, and enjoyable. The only reason it’s
so low on the list is because I haven’t listened to it much.
Unlike the following.
4. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
You’ll notice that a lot of my discoveries this year are jazz. This is because I got into the genre in a big way. This is the album that did it. A sprawling jazz epic (ha ha) that covers pretty much everything the genre is doing or has
been doing in recent years. An absolutely mammoth undertaking by
Kamasi and crew and one that keeps making its way to my turntable despite it’s 3 hour runtime.
3.John Coltrane – Giant Steps
Duh. One of the
most technical and influential Jazz albums of all time. Also really
pleasant to listen to. Only reason it’s so low is because it’s
been done to the point of commonality.
2. Miles Davis – Big Fun
compilation album. Feels like a less paranoid, looser, and more fun
Bitches Brew. One of Davis’s most underrated releases.
1. Grimes – Visions
What can I say?
Really high quality pop album that feels like it’s from another
planet. I’m really sad I slept on Grimes this long.
As a music critic,
particularly a critic in the Indie scene, it can be tantamount to
suicide to say that you don’t get an album or an artist, especially
when that artist is beloved by many and arguably launched a genre on
their own. Which is why it’s hard for me to admit that, for the
longest time, I didn’t get Grimes.
Which is a shame,
because, much like Billie, Grimes is an interesting force of
personality by herself. Hailing from Vancouver, Grimes has produced
some of the most interesting left of the dial content in indie pop,
and nowhere is this more visible than on Visions.
This album is the
soundtrack to being at a party and wishing that you were anywhere
else. Tracks such as Vowels = Space and Time do a good job at
tapping into this strange, swirling anxiety. While the verses are
almost about spending time with a lover, the lover that Grimes is
referring to seems to be herself. “Being myself makes me feel like
I can’t touch the ground Here on the earth makes me feel like I
can’t get the sound, Being myself makes me feel like I know who you
are.” This is to say nothing of the stellar Oblivion, one of her
most popular songs. It almost seems on this song that she wants to
treat love like a game, like so many others, but she just keeps
getting caught in a cycle of falling hard and leaving fast. “Playing
the deck above, It’s always different, I’m the one in love.”
This is to say
nothing of the eclectic and strange production. It feels like if
Beach House and Com Truise got together to make a pop band. The
result is one of the strangest, yet most satisfying listens ever. Be
a Body is a great example of this album’s style, sharp synthesizers
and a driving bass beat acting as great counterpoint to Grimes’
pillowy, misty voice.
Overall, I’d say
Visions is a great listen from front to back, whether you’re
looking to relax or to turn up. If you’re looking for something
more experimental than Lorde but not as esoteric as Bjork, you could
do a whole lot worse than Grimes.
Fun in the Darkness - when we all fall asleep, where do we go by Billie Eilish
I LOVE BILLIE EILISH. There. I said it. Lambast me in the notes,
question my credibility as a reviewer, deny my father, refuse my
name, I will die before you take the most interesting person in pop
music away from me.
because, for all intents and purposes, I should absolutely hate this
album. I’ve never been a fan of edgy teenage stuff. If somebody
wanted to make a club dedicated entirely to blasting the edgy aspects
of teenage life, I would be there in a Linkin Park tee ready to write
intentionally bad poetry and loiter in a Hot Topic until mall
security kicked me out.
So why do I like
this album so much?
Well, I think it
comes down to one element in particular, that Billie, and Finneas,
her producer and brother, seem to just be having a ton of fun making
this album. With the little bits of studio chatter that make it onto
the album on tracks such as !!!!!!! and the end of all the good girls
go to hell, we get the impression that this album was created by two
people who are absolutely comfortable with each other in the studio.
As a result, an album that should have been shipped directly to the
used CD rack is an incredibly interesting pop album that is clearly
exactly what it wants to be.
That’s not to
diminish the incredible catchiness of this album, after all songs
like bad guy, bury a friend, and you should see me in a crown have
been permanently stuck in my head, but this album is not entirely pop
fluff. While those songs are a great example of Finneas’
incredible propensity to find the most minimal way to get into your
ear and a great vehicle for Billie’s signature breathy yet
emotional voice, that’s not the core of the album for me.
The subtler cuts are
where this album really shines. Tracks such as wish you were gay do
a great job painting a picture of romantic frustration while also
weaving in some neat lyrical tricks (I particularly adore the way the
verses count down as they build up to the chorus). The last two
non-remix tracks, listen before i go and i love you, are also
incredibly emotionally affecting. If Billie released and acoustic
album, I feel it would be a great success.
At the end of the
day, I love this album. Is it an album for everyone? Not by a
longshot. But if you’re looking for some pop music that isn’t
afraid to have a little fun in the darkness, give this a shot.
Congrats on the Grammy nominations Billie and Finneas, I can’t wait
to see what you do in the future.
I know I be coming home - Splendor and Misery by Clipping.
It’s rare that a rap album can really make me think. This is not a
knock on the genre as a whole, but it does seem to have been
overflowed by people who want to do nothing but turn up and regret
their life choices the next morning. Now, I realize that I am the
odd one out here, what with the popularity of trap music on the pop
charts, but sometimes you need to sit down. How ironic then that
clipping, with their second album, chose to create something so
deeply sci-fi and calm that it was nominated for a hugo.
producers William Hutson, Johnathan Snipes, and MC Daveed Digs, who
if you are a certain type of user on this site you will know played
Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the Broadway production
of Hamilton. The group had one ep, one mixtape, and one album under
their belt when they decided to take a more narrativic style of
produciton. Compared to 2014’s CLPPNG album, Splendor and Misery
is a cinematic and densely layered album.
The album is a
comparatively short 37 minutes long, but it uses every part of the
buffalo to create a claustrophobic, noisy, chaotic, but deeply
affecting listen. The album tells the story of a black man stuck on
a ship looking for a place to call home. A slave spaceship. The
only name we have for him is Cargo #2331. He is the last survivor of
an intergalactic slave rebellion described in the album’s second
track, The Breach. The entire album is a black man searching for a
place to call his own. Considering the history of the African
American people, the parallels should be obvious.
As opposed to the
hyper performance seen on CLPPNG, the band keeps the arrangements of
the beats rather minimal. Metallic droning, bending metal, and deep
bass hits compliment the crushing loneliness our protagonist feels in
the deep dark reaches of space. However, Digs’ lyrics maintain
their poignancy on tracks such as True Believer or Break The Glass.
Overall, I highly
recommend Clipping’s second album. Even if you can’t get behind
the politics of the album or the message about the slave trade or
what it means to be an African American in America, the album is a
great example of Afro-Futurism and a brilliant science fiction story.
I hope we get a film version eventually.
I think it’s fair to say that without Dan and Tim, the modern music
scene would look very different.
If Radiohead and
Nine Inch Nails popularized the idea that you could go independent
and still have great success as an artist, then Dan and Tim’s
project Have A Nice Life was the proof of concept. With their 2008
album Deathconsciousness coming out of nowhere to become one of the
most beloved independent albums of the 2000s, they showed that the
music industry’s grip on the public’s ears was slipping.
However, this left another question.
Was Have A Nice Life
That question was
answered in 2014 with their follow up The Unnatural World, which
proved that, despite being two guys with a drum machine and a home
tape recorder, they could rock like the best of them. Tracks such as
Defenestration Song proved that they had the chops. However, this
still left another question.
Could Have A Nice
Life keep it up?
For a while we
didn’t know. Dan and Tim would part ways to focus on their own
projects for five years, and we got almost no news on Have A Nice
Life in the interim. However, we would eventually get our answer.
Yes. Yes they
2019’s Sea Of
Worry feels almost like a happy medium between Have A Nice Life’s
previous two albums. Tracks such as the album opener Sea of Worry
and the follow up Dracula Bells are shoegazy, furiously propulsive
rock anthems, with towering size and distortion for days, while
tracks such as the 13 minute album closer Destinos prove that Have A
Nice Life have never let go of the mysticism and strangeness that
made Deathconsciousness such a breath of fresh air.
However, we also get
shades of development in the Have A Nice Life catalog. The iconic
drum machine is almost never featured on this album, and when it is,
it is used to accentuate a strange drum pattern, such as on the third
track of the album Science Beat, where the machine is used to create
a hypnotic beat that almost swirls around the listener, similar to
the glockenspiel used on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ouvre. A similar
parallel is drawn on the fifth track, Everything We Forget, a drone that
would not sound out of place on something like F#A#Infinity.
The lyrics are
familiar to anybody who has even a tangential knowledge of Have A
Nice Life, gloomy, emotional, and deeply depressed, they should touch
the darkness of anybody. They can get a bit tiresome at times, and
the echo effect Dan puts on his vocals can make them hard to
understand, but, for the first time, they don’t seem like the focus
for Have A Nice Life. This album is sonic based in a way that their
previous albums just haven’t been.
Overall, I do
recommend Sea Of Worry. Is is the best Have A Nice Life have ever
put out? No, Deathconsciousness is still their masterpiece. However,
if you are a fan of this strange band from Connecticut, definitely
give them a listen, after all, there’s nobody else like them.
Dipping the Wheel in Golden Tears: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors
If I may get personal for a moment. I am a creative; meaning I am a
person who creates things for other people to consume, everything
from these polished reviews to little scraps that I hope nobody finds
when I’m gone. Sometimes this creation is a clinical operation,
such as an essay written for a not for profit that I have no personal
experience with. Some I put some of myself into the review; it is
unavoidable for an operation like this, I am offering my opinions to
the audience, whatever that audience is, and I cannot help but inject
myself into my opinions. However, sometimes an artist puts
themselves entirely into their work, I only do this with my poetry,
which will be observable by nobody, it is the most private kind of
art. So what would happen if a band created art that was not only
incredibly competent in its own sphere, but was also deeply, almost
You might get
something like Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 masterpiece, Rumours.
To say that
Fleetwood Mac is an important band is to maybe oversell them a little
bit, but there is no doubt that they were a successful band.
Spanning from 1967 all the way to 2003, the band featured a revolving
door of instrumentalists and collaborators before finally solidifying
in 1975 to their most famous lineup: Mick Fleetwood on drums, John
McVie on bass, Stevie Nicks on vocals and Guitar, Lindsey Buckingham
on vocals and lead guitar, and Christine McVie on vocals and
keyboard. However, it looked like it might not remain that way for
Despite a commercial
smash with their second eponymous album, and a granting of unlimited
time by their label, Warner Brothers records, Fleetwood Mac was a
band in turmoil. It is fair to say that every single band member was
going through romantic troubles at the time. With the band’s
success came the end of John McVie and Christine Mcvie’s 8 year
long marriage, as well as the ending of Stevie Nicks’ and Lindsey
Buckingham’s long term romantic relationship. Add to that the
pressure of Mick Fleetwood’s divorce from his wife Jenny, and the
fact that this was all coming off six months of high intensity
touring, and it would be a shock if Fleetwood Mac even survived to
see another album.
However, the result
of this turmoil is an album that is the platonic ideal of pop music.
Every single track, when listened to even once, will bury itself into
your head so deep you’ll need a cheese grater to get them out. Not
to mention the fact that the lyrics are absolutely top notch. Every
member of the band wrote each of their songs in relative isolation,
the full band only collaborating on The Chain. As a result, many of
the songs seem to be responses to one another. For instance, the
album opener, the Buckingham written Second Hand News, and the Stevie
nicks written second track, Dreams, seem to be in dialogue with each
other. Buckingham claims Stevie is shrugging him off because she’s
bored, and Nicks claims she is leaving Lindsey because he keeps
claiming he wants his freedom. If you approach the lyrics much like
how you would approach a soap opera, you will discover a treasure
trove of band drama contrasted by the pillowy soft stylings of the
album. The instrumentals vary from mildly intense soft rock to laid
back folk pieces, to shirt rending wails of grief. For a soft rock
album, there is a surprising amount of variety here. Fleetwood Mac
really do give you your money’s worth on this album, there isn’t
a bad track on this thing.
Rumours is worth the
listen for anybody who is interested in the development of popular
music as a genre. Fleetwood Mac here seem to have perfected the
form. They didn’t reinvent anything, but they polished it to a
mirror shine. Didn’t reinvent the wheel, but dipped the wheel in
Note: This review was originally posted in the Calvin University Chimes Arts and Entertainment Column on September 22, 2017. I am posting it here, with some revisions, for the sake of completeness.
something admirable in consistency. While sonic evolution can be fun to
discuss, there is a certain charm to doing one thing well — while also
knowing when to experiment, make small changes and explore the outer
limits of a set of sounds. The band The National is no stranger to this
idea. “Sleep Well Beast” — their seventh studio album — sticks closely
to their established sound, while iterating on it and creating beautiful
Fans of The National know the band’s
sound well: post-punk with intricate guitar work, rhythmically complex
drums and Matt Berninger’s introspective lyrics delivered in his
signature baritone. These elements are all present on “Sleep Well
Beast,” but in different ways than in the past. This is The National’s
most intimate album to date. The opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be
There,” kicks off the album with quiet, electronic drumbeats, solemn
string ambiance and one of the most mournful piano parts that you may
hear in indie rock.
The album does have a few loud
tracks, such as the driving “Day I Die,” but “Beast” is mostly a subdued
experience designed for rainy nights with headphones on.
However, it would not be a record by
The National if it were merely pretty sounds l. The lyrics, as always,
are front and center: dealing with loss, relationships and the pain that
both can cause. One particularly brilliant example of this is the
one-two punch of “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store,” where
the narrator speaks about a failing relationship that is just not
working. He doesn’t try to cast blame or point fingers, “It’s nobody’s
fault, no guilty party, we’ve just got nothing … left to say.”
However, “Carin” reveals that the
other half of this relationship is often more willing to cast blame, “So
blame it on me,” the narrator tiredly laments, “I really don’t care.”
Most of the other songs on “Beast” follow a similar pattern — focusing
on romance and the myriad ways we humans fail at it.
However, while there may be some
value in these messages, they have a tough time carrying the entire
album. At times, the music can come across as a bit underwhelming,
especially on the louder tracks such as “Turtleneck,” where
introspective lyrics are tied to a loud rock track that sounds like “Mr.
November” without any teeth.
Though this may be one of the band’s
more flawed albums,The National are still experts at creating their
particular brand of sonic beauty. This album is a gem, polished by a
band that has spent years perfecting their craft. If you liked The
National’s previous efforts, or if you just like post-punk in general,
you will probably enjoy their latest efforts on “Sleep Well Beast.”
Falling Down the Hole: The Downward Spiral in Retrospect
The year is 1994. The place is Woodstock, New York. The crowd is
abuzz, despite having slogged through mud and paid outrageous prices
to be here. A single name rises above the rabble, Nine Inch Nails, a
teenage war chant accompanied by pumping fists. A pounding
industrial beat comes on, sounding like machinery dredged up from the
bowels of Hell itself. The cheers only grow louder as the band takes
their places. They are a disheveled sight, caked in mud from head to
toe, sloppy, almost inhuman looking. One picks up a guitar and
begins to play a rising chord progression, distorted, angry, feral.
They are Nine Inch Nails, and they are the newest addition to the
25 years later,
Nine Inch Nails may not remain as relevant as they were on that night
in 94, but their legacy is secure. Frontman Trent Reznor managed to
capture the particular angst of the 90s in a way that made it seem
terrifyingly real and raw. Reznor would yell, scream, throw
microphones, destroy keyboards, and endanger audience safety in their
incredibly intense live shows. However, before 1994, they were
unable to translate that energy onto record. Perhaps only 1992’s
Broken EP came the closest, but even that lacked the same lyrical
rawness of Pretty Hate Machine.
That changed with their masterpiece, The Downward Spiral,
an album which manages to
provide excellent tunes and a terrifying concept that hasn’t aged a
day. With a society
that deals more and more with issues of depression, alienation,
social rejection, and uncontrolled id with each passing day, The
Downward Spiral serves as a
warning to what happens when we go too far and fall too deep.
we can speak about the album, we need to contextualize it, because
like most bands, context is just as important in evaluating an album
as the music itself. In 1992, Nine Inch Nails were going through
extreme turmoil, with their
label, and their personal lives. The band’s label, TVT Records,
had placed extreme pressure on the band to produce a follow up to
their modestly successful debut album, Pretty Hate Machine.
During the course of this
pressuring, Reznor learned that the label was going to be taking away
creative control from the band, turning them into, as he put it,
“Depeche Mode Part 2.” Reznor was having none of it, and
demanded to be released from his contract. TVT records refused. As
a result, he had to record the follow up EP, Broken, in
secret from the label. Reznor eventually signed with Interscope
Records and created his own sub-label, Nothing Records. As he put
it. “We made it very clear we were not doing another record for
TVT. But they made it pretty clear they weren’t ready to sell. So I
felt like, well, I’ve finally got this thing going but it’s dead. …
Jimmy Iovine got involved with Interscope, and we kind of got
slave-traded. It wasn’t my doing. I didn’t know anything about
Interscope. … But Interscope went into it like they really wanted
to know what I wanted. It was good, after I put my raving lunatic
regained control of his music, Reznor retreated and began to work on
a follow up to the Broken EP.
He was looking for a happy medium sound, something between the
harshness of Broken
and the anger of Pretty Hate.
Looking for a studio space,
he rented out 10050 Cielo Drive, the place where the Manson Family
murdered Sharon Tate, and converted the infamous house into a
recording studio. Over the course of the next year, Reznor would
produce The Downward Spiral.
Spiral opens with a sample of a
prison guard beating a prisoner from George Lucas’ debut feature
film, THX 1138. This
clip is a perfect summation of the album’s treatment of first time
listeners. In this metaphor,
you, the listener, are the prisoner
being beaten. As the sample speeds up, like an engine being turned
over, the opening track, Mr. Self Destruct, takes
off like a rocket. The first
time I turned on the album, I nearly blew out my headphones it was so
loud and abrasive. However, once I got used to the sound, I found
myself rocking along. The album shifts between sulky, funky synthpop
tracks, and blistering fast metal. I know this makes the album sound
binary, but there are so many layers to the synthpop and metal.
Compare the album’s second track, Piggy, and the fifth track,
Closer; where the former is a slinky, almost slimy villain song, the
latter is a sexy
funk jam that wouldn’t be out of place in a BDSM film, complete
with effect pedal drenched guitar and
screamed, almost orgasmically delivered vocals.
The degredation of this,
“sex I can smell” is not something to be avoided, it is something
to be fully embraced.
the music on this album is excellent from beginning to end, it
is the concept that propels it from merely great, to legendary
status. When questioned
about the identity of Mr. Self Destruct, the
album’s protagonist, Reznor
replied that Mr. Self Destruct is him, but the version of him that
follows all of his vices to the
bitter, most extreme, end.
album tells its story through careful layering
of metaphor and music, with
the narrative binding lyric
of, “Nothing can stop me
now, cuz I don’t care anymore.” Needless
to say, this lack
doesn’t end well for him. Mr.
Self Destruct’s journey of hedonism and, well, self-destruction,
to him losing faith in God, humanity, and himself, and culminates in
his suicide in the album’s title track. “He
couldn’t believe how easy it was. (he
put the gun into his face) Bang! (so much blood for such a tiny
little hole) Problems do have solutions you know. A lifetime of
fucking things up fixed, in one determined flash.” The
problem is not the man, but the uncaring, the malignant hatred that
forces people to their basest instincts to chase highs in a
meaningless world where God is dead and no one cares.
Downward Spiral is a warning
against such uncaring, and it is presented in such a raw,
unfiltered way because it was
painfully ripped out of Trent Reznor’s own guts. Reznor used his
own journal as inspiration for lyrics when writing the album, and
composed everything to be in line with the personal vision he had.
Struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, and a drug problem
that would later in his life almost kill him, he wrote a treatise on
how easy it is for people to fall down the rabbit hole of poor
decisions. By the time we reach the album’s ninth
track, Mr. Self Destruct has completely retreated into his own mind,
the only place where he can find refuge from
the swirling torrent of hell his life has become,
but even that is quickly usurped.
the album’s closer, found
on The Downward Spiral and
eventually made famous by Johnny Cash, describes the end result of
following every impulse, including
suicide. Mr. Self Destruct
is reduced to a machine that must hurt himself in order to feel
pondering, “If I could
start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself. I would find
a way.” The album ends,
not in triumph, but in human suffering.That’s
the most appropriate word, I think, for this album: human. Most
concepts, and concept albums
by extension, feel alien to
any listener, but The Downward Spiral’s concept
is something people live out daily. Generally, we don’t have
experience with becoming a martian rockstar a la Ziggy Stardust, but
we all know the fear of losing ourselves to vice. Ziggy
is an unreachable ideal that plays guitar; you
could make one bad choice, and turn into Mr. Self Destruct tomorrow.
Despite being made of
and screamed lyrics purpose
built to convey artificiality,
the album relates a deeply human fear.
And, as the album’s
continued longevity proves,
the audience, like the
Woodstock kids, continues to
move to it’s poignant message
I think it’s fair to say that, after 10 Years, 4 albums, and 1 EP,
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has
established a formula. Not in the traditional sense, bands like
Fleetwood Mac or
Maroon 5 are well
known for having formulas, but in the sense that his music tends to
be about the same thing. Whether the stripped back, wintery beauty
of For Emma, Forever Ago, or
the electronic chaos of 22, A Million, Vernon
trains his lyrical camera entirely on himself. Emma is
about his failings as a lover, Blood Bank is
about recalling the good times, Self
Titled is about his past as viewed through age and significant dates.
22 is about his
longing to grow past his current place, and his latest album, 2019’s
i,i, is about finally
begin our tour with For Emma, Forever Ago, the
demo tape that was so good it was pretty much released as is. The
story behind Bon Iver’s debut is so poetic, it
is told over and over again in the band’s mythology. After a
particularly difficult run of Irish luck in which his former band,
DeYarmond Edison, broke up, his girlfriend left him, and he
contracted a one two punch of pneumonia and mono, he sequestered
himself in a cabin in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and wrote and recorded
For Emma over the
course of one very intense winter. He
submitted the demo tape to the indie album Jagjaguar, where it was
immediately accepted and sent to print with very minor revisions to
add extra instrumentation and clean up the mix. The album opens with
the beautifully atmospheric Flume, a bare guitar emphasized by snowy
static and Vernon’s clear, bell like voice. “I am my mother’s
only one”, he mournfully cries, “It’s enough.” The
main idea contained throughout the album is loneliness, and the
album’s mix as well as its lyrics go a long way to establishing
this theme. The two standout tracks for establishing this mood the
most potently are the third track, Skinny Love, where Vernon laments
a love that simply is not going to plan, and the album closer,
Re:Stacks, a mournful ballad about being unable to move forward
despite being already packed. It’s no surprise that this track
would end pretty much every early Bon Iver show. This is not to say
that the album is entirely without lushness; the side 1 closer The
Wolves Pt II is a textbook example of how to build a crescendo in a
folk song, showing off Vernon’s aptitude for mood that would become
fully fleshed out in later releases. In retrospect, For
Emma is an incredibly strong
debut and an album that works well as a thesis for the later parts of
the band’s career.
the relatively minor release Blood Bank, a
4 track EP that is only notable for the song Woods, a
track built entirely out of acapella autotuned vocals and a track
that gained the notice of Kanye West, Vernon and his entourage
recorded and released Bon Iver’s self titled album in 2011. This
album marked a sea change in the way that Vernon approached the
project. As opposed to the quiet, stripped back sound of For
Emma, the self titled album is
lush, full sounding, and packed with swelling crescendos and massive
climaxes, as if Sigur Ros decided to make folk music. Tracks such as
the beautiful, soaring Perth and the subtle, yet beautiful Michican’t
do a great job at providing a lush, pillowy bed of sound that you can
just lie in. However, the
true standout of the album is the closing track, Beth Rest, which
adds a new toolkit to the Bon Iver sound; electronics. Granted,
these are 1980s power electronics, but they are electronics none the
less. Vernon also goes one step further and blankets his voice in
copius amounts of autotune. The result is something beautiful, yet
distant. As Vernon puts it, “It is the sound of doing something
you want to do with absolutely no restraint.” Bon Iver
would go on to be Justin
Vernon’s first true success with the group, earning him critical
accolades and a truly wide audience, which resulted in him being
nominated for, and subsequently winning, the best new artist grammy
award in 2011. Personally, I feel that Bon Iver is
the moment when the group truly found its sound, grandiosity and
beauty, but filtered through reality and experience.
the wild success that the self titled album brought him, Vernon put
the project on indefienate hold. He stated that he wanted to
decompress for a while and for that to happen, Bon Iver had to take a
break. He didn’t know when, or if, the project would return, and
many fans feared the breakup of the band. During
this time, he would only release an itunes session of material from
the self titled albums, but no new songs were released. During this
time, he would help Kanye West record two albums, and would work on
several side projects. Bon
Iver returned in 2016 with 22, A Million,
by far the projects’ most ambitious output and it’s most
musically dense. In a strange move for a folk act, the album
contains almost no acoustic instruments. The album is as lush and
beautiful as the self titled album that made the project famous, but
takes that lushness in a different, icier direction. Songs like “22
(OVER S∞∞N)“ and, "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”
reveal a sharper, more electronic form of songwriting. Comparisons
to Everything in it’s Right Place and The National Anthem off of
Radiohead’s Kid A are only too easy to make. However,
this is not to say that all feeling has been drained from the record;
tracks such as 29 Stafford Appts. and 8 (Circle) are only too happy
to indulge in the previous beauty of earlier releases, with saxophone
arrangements by Sad Sax of Shit soaring above Vernon’s autotuned
vocals. 22, A Million is
a mixed bag of an album. Certain tracks such as the aforementioned
10, are too dense and difficult for me to truly enjoy, but the album
makes a brilliant case for the new direction of the band. I was left
disappointed, but excited to see where the group would go next.
for fans who embraced this new direction, Vernon was much quicker on
the draw for his next album. In
2019, when Bon Iver released their fourth album I,i, which
feels, for all intents and purposes, like a refinement of what Vernon
tried on 22, A Million. Tracks
such as iMi and Holyfields feel like a softer, easier listen than
most of the material on 22, A Million. The
instrumentation feels more controlled, tighter written than what we
saw on his previous efforts. There is little that sounds accidental,
especially when compared to For Emma, which
is an album nearly full of accident. However, this precision does
not mean that Vernon sacrifices any of his songwriting beauty. Hey,
ma, and U (man like) is one of the best one two punches in modern
folk. Hey, ma is a lush, dense electronic song about forgetting your
roots. “Tall time to talk
your money up while it’s living in a coal mine” chastises Vernon,
speaking to someone whose dreams are, perhaps, too big for their
small pocketbook. U (man
like) is about improving yourself through constant work and effort.
I,i feels like a
fitting bookend to Bon Iver’s current discography. It is Vernon’s
most carefully crafted album but also one of his most obviously
personal. There is little that you cannot feel as Vernon does on
is this idea in music criticism called the best new artist’s curse.
The idea is that the best new artist’s Grammy award for any
particular year usually goes to flash in the pan artists who end up
not contributing anything and flaming out after one album. Of
course, there are exceptions to this rule, but for every Beatles and
Mariah Carey, there is at least five Starlight Vocal Bands. It is my
personal belief that the indie music scene is better for Justin
Vernon not being one of these artsits. Bon
Iver has accomplished much over it’s decade long existance, and
Vernon has established himself as one of the premiere artists of
indie folk. Not a flash in the pan, but one of the most brilliant
songwriters of our generation.