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Bon Iver’s Indie Soft-Rock: Transcendent or Torpid?

Reviewing the albums Justin Vernon makes as Bon Iver is like trying to review a friend’s spouse: You may not like the person, but they’re going to be perfectly pleasant toward you, so you might as well just smile and be happy that your friend is content. Judging their intimate relations is not really your concern.

And these Bon Iver records live or die on a sense of intimacy. The backstory for the first one, For Emma, Forever Ago: The guy's band breaks up, his relationship breaks up, he gets mono; he winds up in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods recording high-lonesome songs about it all, songs whose sound makes you imagine said cabin being 150 square feet, tops. Now this one, Bon Iver, Bon Iver: The guy's become massively successful, collaborated with Kanye West, shifted the focus from his lonesome self to his band, and recorded something more expansive and dynamic. But it's still all about hushes and stillness. His voice is still a steamy moan with no edges, no contours, no particularly distinct lyrics — just that sense of closeness.

Which seems to inspire the same polarized reactions too many indie records evoke these days: Folks either fall head over heels for this music or find it rather dull.

“Dull,” in this case, describes a feeling the listener has, a withholding of interest. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of the music: The stuff Vernon’s done with this album might be tasteful and torpid, but it honestly isn’t predictable or obvious. For one thing, he's surely the only current musician this successful at combining languid aughts indie-folk with goopy eighties soft-rock and soul — conjuring the sound of Iron & Wine and Michael McDonald getting together to compare beards. By the final track, “Beth/Rest,” there are keyboards straight out of a Phil Collins ballad, guitars that wouldn't sound out of place over a Top Gun sex scene, and saxophones, and it may occur to you that Vernon's voice can sound a great deal like Peter Cetera's. The album skips from runs of homey rock and pedal-steel guitar ("Towers") to tidy waltz-time harmonizing ("Michicant") to songs built around tremolos and echos and disembodied chunks of strings ("Hinnom, TX," which is pretty experimental for a song that could unite Sufjan Stevens's fans with Jack Johnson's). Almost all of it is — by any standard — extremely beautiful, finely wrought, and full of creativity. Yet there's something about it that can almost make you feel these qualities aren't particularly surprising or remarkable.

The crux of it, I think, is Vernon's voice, which is so consistently smooth and honeyed that it feels more like someone playing keyboards than an actual human emoting. Every once in a while, some mild climax will emerge, and some drums will perk up, and there'll be a moment where the voice takes on a sense of grain — a catch, a texture, or an urgency — and then that sense of stillness and smoothness, the not-unpleasant feeling of wandering through an infinitely large and empty sauna, will actually open up into some new space. And each time, it's an odd reminder of why I feel ambivalent about these albums — unsure whether I should be praising the 90 percent of them that are lovely or demanding a little bit more.

Photo: Wendy Redfern/Redferns