Bon Iver symbolizes everything I’ve grown to despise about indie music. From the restrained (some might say precious) falsetto vocals right down to the bushy, unkempt beard that is a requirement of the scene. I even bristle at the pretentious way you’re supposed to say the name (it’s pronounced “bone e-vair").
So why is it I’ve been listening to this album so much? It starts with a drum part.
“Bon Iver” opens with a plaintive guitar melody as intro to first song “Perth.” A backing choir slides into the song next, followed by a muted military snare cadence. Justin Vernon (the actual “Bon Iver”) sneaks in next, adding his nearly indecipherable high-pitched, yet warm voice. The music swells and ebbs like a wave, adding bits and pieces of other little sounds until, at 2:32, this monstrous drum pattern explodes into the mix, pounding away like indie Metallica. There are no lyrics the rest of the way, but a horn section joins the fray. By the last burst of sound, you have one of my favorite songs of the year.
That drum part, which lasts less than two minutes, unlocked this whole album for me. I’m not as enthralled with the rest of “Bon Iver” as I am of “Perth,” but that’s not to say there aren’t some fine moments. “Minnesota, WI” has some funky elements that remind me of TV on the Radio, while “Holocene” is another slow-building acoustic gem. Lead single “Calgary” aptly summarizes the entire album with its lush, heavy synth-and-percussion arrangement (even if it does sound uncomfortably too close to Coldplay in the first few bars), and “Towers” bounces along like the best song Tom Petty never sang in falsetto. I don’t even mind the Peter Cetera-style closer, “Beth/Rest,” which so many critics seem to revile (but maybe that’s just because I like Peter Cetera).
I lose patience with the middle trio of songs, though. "Michicant" and "Wash" are decent, but "Hinnom, TX" kinda sounds like Jemaine Clement doing David Bowie. Together, these three slow tracks bog down the middle of the record terribly.
“Bon Iver” is challenging work that sets a definite mood. It’s the type of music you don’t put on just for background noise; like The National, it's great for driving by yourself on a dark night. My guess is you’ll either really like it or really, really won’t. Before I ever heard it, I certainly would’ve put myself in the latter category. And I would’ve missed out on one of my favorite albums of the year.
Favorite Track: “Perth”
Least Favorite Track: “Hinnom, TX”