Thursday, 3 April 2008

BON IVER: The Wolves (Act I And II)

These days, of course, the kneejerk reaction is to look for the join. The notion of Justin Vernon - who is effectively Bon Iver - holing himself up in a remote Wisconsin cabin to record the not quite quiescent reflections on love lost and not yet regained which make up the nine (or eight, or one?) songs on the album For Emma, Forever Ago is attractive to a degree but still we are so debased by unentertaining fakery that we instinctively fold our arms and wait for our dour doubts to be validated. The creak of loose floorboard, the shuffle of plain chair - it seems pat to a degree which invites suspicion.

Or at least it does for the second or two before the music itself begins, whereupon one realises that the circumstances of either artist or recording do not come into workable consideration, for I can see and smell that cabin, identify the emotions being dealt like cards of liquid stone, visualise and warily imbibe his offered darkness. The first song, "Flume," post-cabin sound effects, begins with some hohum standard folky acoustic picking - but then this voice enters (sometimes in multiple forms); if anything I am reminded of Nelly, with his high-pitched sprechtesang rap - Vernon sings in a high but hushed tone which he only brings down when the song's emotions require it, as he does startlingly on the acrid, acid break-up song "Skinny Love," upon which he hangs himself on a forsaken clothes line of "told"s ("And I TOLD you to be patient/And I TOLD you to be fine," etc.) with a lowering tone dripping with more hurt than hate, like the Plastic Ono Band Lennon but far more remorseful.

Then the placid electronic interference begins; disused power station drones, caverns of dark, static fluid. There's a wonderful moment at 1:45-1:46 where Vernon turns the "more" in the phrase "Nothing's more" into something not quite human, while behind him guitars collapse into shards of shattered crystal. Then at 2:30 the song gently comes apart for 20 seconds of indeterminate flotation before pulling itself together again. Every song seems to depend for its rhythm and pace on the breath which the wind chooses to take at any particular second.

The OMD "Souvenir" choir which heralds "Lump Sum" over a discreet but insistent heartbeat continues to unravel the impression of damaged folk balladry gone 4AD; not quite Gram but not far away from This Mortal Coil at certain angles (though the jagged is not excepted from duty, as demonstrated by the cry of "So-THE-sto-RY GOES" and subsequent crack in the throat at 1:42). There are major nods towards Sufjan, too - the patented Boy Scout brass of "For Emma," the nearest thing this record has to a title track, together with the distended he and she quotes which make up the lyric, the inverted vacuum blast of guitars which flood out after the "running home" quattrain, the subverted electronic crackle, the dialogue between guitar and brass. But in other places - most markedly the six-minute closer "re:stacks" - there is a sense of the blues transposed; lyrics which you would imagine Robert Johnson growling ("When your money's gone and you're drunk as hell," "This is pouring rain...this is paralysed") are hummed beningly with a back/racks/stacks chorus sung in Brasil '66 echoed staccato and entwined with the quaintly courteous hurt of "Whatever could it be that has brought me to this loss?" Regardless, he still hasn't learned his lesson ("This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation" - chew on that "crispy" for a moment, if you will) and if nothing else leaves the door open for a sequel, although "your love will be safe with me," he tries to reassure himself.

"Creature Fear"'s chorality turns into the ghosts of the Sons of the Pioneers ("So many foreign worlds - so relatively fucked," "So many Torahs") before an insistent snare drum doubles up, moves to the foreground and instigates an extraordinary two-minute instrumental coda ("Team") which rears up using all of Vernon's resources before settling in a puddle of untidy whistling. "Blindminded" could almost be a cousin to Hercules & Love Affair's "Blind" in its crackling solitariness (midsong he cries, tired and defeated, "Would you really rush out for me now?"); note the lyrical emphasis on the sharply guttural ("I crunch like a crow," "I cup the window"), the non-throwaway remark "I'm not really like this..." and the abrupt high-speed backwards rush of gabble two-thirds of the way through the song.

But the bipartite "Wolves" is minimally stunning; an acoustic guitar which, like Beckett's Bim, can't make up its mind whether to proceed through the mud or pause and die, backed up with distant unspecified tinkles (life as it was or could be?). "Someday my pain," chants Vernon, deadpan, before urging his departed lover (or himself) to "walk through with the wild wolves around you.../Send it further on."

His requests steadily grow in size and impact - "Solace my game," "Swing wide your crane - and run me through/And the story's all over you." But these high bandwidths of choral voices suddenly sound a lot closer to Paisley Park than they do to any notion of folk or cabins; the Prince-ness becomes even more apparent with the tremulous "ING" of each "in the morn-ING." With "eyes painted Sinatra blue" (hers, not his - or are they his?) Vernon turns the song into a slow 6/8 mantra: "What might have been lost...don't bother me," and as you might have guessed he does not convince us for a second (and note the two very subtle intrusions of AutoTune here; did you catch that? Need to be quicker!). The lines are repeated with gradually increasing harmonies to a point of such subtle intensity that we are entirely taken aback by the sudden entry of vigorous free jazz drumming - backwards on the left channel, forward on the right - as though pulling the rest of the world down with it. This resolves into small, whimpering post-Bailey acoustic plucks and then the song (in its second, brief part) returns to the quiet Purple beginning; a few more chants of "Someday my pain" ("will mark you"), an apologetic clearing of throat, footsteps into the wilderness of the cabin's opposite end, ten feet away. Suddenly prosaic, pedantic pretenders like the Felice Brothers or well-meaning but woefully studiumised worthies like the Fleet Foxes sound as though they the way, whereas Bon Iver sets about constructing a new (millionth?) way. Breathe the studio, but watch out for the hidden glass - there is no join deserving of belittlement.