When the Manchester Evening News relaunched CityLife a few years back – not long before the axe was plunged through its privates – Neil Sowerby, the then editor, personally warned me not to request the Bon Iver gig because everyone wanted it (and presumably I was not CityLife´s star critic). Fine, I was completely unaware of this act with the poorly spelt French moniker. Bon Iver derives from Bon Hiver meaning Good Winter – oddly the change in spelling does not change its pronunciation, and evidences a certain amount of thoughtlessness that explodes on this self-titled sophomore effort.
For those of you who have been living in equally remote conditions, Bon Iver is the name Justin Vernon took after his band split, he broke up with his girlfriend, contracted mononucleosis and retired to a cabin north-western Wisconsin to record For Emma, Forever Ago. Ignoring the elephant in the room, that the album’s lyrics were chosen meaninglessly (because they sounded nice with the music) few albums have so successfully recalled the environment and emotions that surrounded the recording process. The sense of isolation and loss is startling, and it is for this reason that Bon Iver became a runaway success.
On Bon Iver (the album), the thing that has run away is self-restraint (seriously, it’s nowhere to be seen). The album is catastrophically over-produced. Everything is so rounded and soft that it feels like drowning in a bath of Dulux puppies. There are 101 different instruments on each track (one for each puppy), string instruments, synths, vocals and horns overlayed into oblivion and soaked in reverb, until we’re left with a muddy hell – ‘Holocene’ being a perfect example of such self-destruction. Just as the song titles, ‘Perth’, ‘Minnesota’, ‘Holocene’, show that Bon Iver has left his wintery abode to travel non-stop, this change in both direction and production marks the departure of bon hiver and the arrival of bon ete. Summer has arrived, making for an overwhelmingly positive experience, but just as sunlight can blind when you’ve been inside for too long, this feels like a change too far. Remember the wonderfully choppy sound Vernon’s £20 guitar made on For Emma, Forever Ago? That’s been replaced by something so characterless it sounds like the guitar is entirely synthesised. On ‘Hinnom, TX’ the backing vocals sound like they’ve been done by the Beegees – it’s impossible to enjoy something with Barry Gibb’s mane circling round your mind’s eye. There are little ruiners like this all over the album.
There is an innate beauty to the basic song-writing that remains…but it will remain hidden until someone hacks through all the superfluous shit and rerelease this (which obviously won’t happen), because this everything goes approach destroys what is essential a bold, creative step.
There are exceptions of course. Opener, ‘Perth’, with its climbing electric guitar part and shocking horns section (honestly it’s really surprising) is a beautifully crafted song, and the way ‘Towers’ develops into a country jaunt is easily the high-point of the album.
Adversity increases productivity. When things are good, focus is the first thing to get lost. Most bands learn this the hard way, but no album has demonstrated this to such an extreme. If Bon Iver is to find its way back to something credible, and it remains certain that talent too is in abundance here, then perhaps Vernon needs to return to that cabin in Wisconsin to remember what it is that made For Emma, Forever Ago so appealing. And while he’s at it change the name to Bon Hiver.