The old cliché about music is that it brings people together. It’s a unifying force in our lives, something we can often discuss with people we have little else in common with. However, I sometimes find that music is just the opposite for me. A lot of the time, music is alienating: It’s the band you love that nobody else seems to know or the band you hate that everyone else seems to love. Both seem to happen to me all the time.
In 2011, no artist represented that idea more than Bon Iver. The band, led by Eau Claire native Justin Vernon, released their self-titled second album this year to rave reviews from the music press and fans, topping many year end music lists in the process. He was the subject of countless magazine covers and articles, Facebook posts, and was even nominated for the Grammy for best album, signifying his breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness. Living in St. Paul, which is right in the heart of Vernon’s midwest stomping grounds, it seems like everyone loves Bon Iver.
Except for me, of course. In the months since his last album came out, I’ve been carrying around a horrible secret: I kind of hate Bon Iver. I haven’t told anyone because I’ve been afraid of possible retribution (Bon Iver’s fans are an intimidating bunch) and, in general, it’s hard to tell someone that you think one of their favorite artists sucks. Especially when it seems to be the favorite artist of half the campus where you spend most of your time.
It wasn’t always this way. Bon Iver’s first album, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago wasn’t my cup of tea, but I at least respected what went into it. The story of Vernon secluding into a cabin after having his heart broken and just writing music in isolation appealed to me, even if it was a tad corny. I didn’t like it, but I saw the appeal because it came from such an honest, genuine place.
I can’t say the same for his self-titled second album, which has baffled and frustrated me pretty much all year. It’s a long way from the spare, “cabin” arrangements of his first album, instead opting to bury his voice under layers and layers of glossy 80’s style sheen. For the most part, you can barely understand what Vernon is singing about through the album. This works for me if you’re a musical genius like Kevin Shields or Radiohead; it doesn’t when your album sounds like it was produced on a synthesizer made in 1983.
Most of all though, though, Bon Iver is just so… dull. Nothing about it grabs my attention. This is incredibly subjective, of course, because different things are interesting to different people. But I have an incredibly hard time picturing anyone getting pumped up to listen to Bon Iver. The same could be said about a lot of folk music, but at least most folk singers have concrete lyrics that I can grab on to so there’s an actual meaning to their songs. Any emotional connection I could make to Bon Iver was typically buried under a synthesizer, a guitar, a saxophone solo, autotune, and the washed-out production.
It’s rare that I outright dislike an album that is so widely acclaimed, so I thought a lot this year about why I had such an intensely negative reaction to Bon Iver. For awhile, I looked at it as sort of a character flaw. Maybe I’m just biased against Vernon and his bearded white male folky brethren, or just wanted to hate the album because it was popular. Perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand the album’s complexity, similar to how I don’t get Animal Collective.
These are all still valid possibilities, but I also think Bon Iver just lacks pretty much everything I look for in music. To illustrate this point, and to try to figure out why I hated this damn album so much, I thought it would be interesting to compare it to my favorite albums of this year.
At the very top is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which is probably the most sensible comparison to Bon Iver. These are the two most acclaimed albums of the year and both are primarily folk-influenced. Both have been called boring by a lot of people, yet I found Let England Shake incredibly powerful and moving while finding Bon Iver tedious. It’s really in the conception where PJ blows Bon Iver out of the water: She made a searing portrait of war in her homeland. Bon Iver made… what exactly? Another folk album where a white guy sings about how sad he is? Where Bon Iver’s lyrics were either cliche or impossible to understand, PJ’s grabbed me and jolted me and had a visceral impact. Let England Shake was my favorite album this year because of its ambition and literary depth. Bon Iver had neither of those things.
That might have been an unfair comparison, since Let England Shake is an amazing album by one of my favorite artists. Perhaps a more fair comparison would be EMA, whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints was third on my list and was also somewhat folk-influenced. I don’t think any song this year jolted me and made me say “who the hell is this?” the way EMA’s “California” did when I first heard it. It was raw, bold, and confrontational, lyrically and musically. It pulled no punches, which is something I really love in music.
Bon Iver is a far cry from that idea. To say Bon Iver pulls punches would be an understatement. It doesn’t even punch at all. It just kind of sits there. There is no attempt at standing out, no hint of challenging listeners, none of the sense of emotional catharsis that I thought Past Life Martyred Saints had. It has absolutely no boldness or originality. It’s just another in a long line of indie folk albums, the type that we hear seemingly thousands of every single year.
In the end, I’m left wondering what it says about the state of indie music today that something like Bon Iver is so widely adored. Is this really what we want from music? Is this what we’re willing to accept from artists? I don’t doubt that for many people the album had a profound emotional impact. Personally, I expect more. I want music that challenges me, excites me, is bold and original. In other words, I don’t want Bon Iver.