“Rotten Tomatoes” is a review writing and critiquing class being offered as a section of “Writing Commons: A Community of Writers” at the University of Iowa. For many of these authors, this is their first publication.
A League of its Own: The Case of the Bon Iver Single
By Jeff Lehman
In a time of candid descriptions of sex in pop music and ear-assaulting bass in the recent dub-step craze, Bon Iver stands as a silent reminder that music can in fact still be beautiful. In 2008, Justin Vernon (under his moniker Bon Iver, a play on the French phrase “bon hiver,” or “good winter”) surprised everyone by erupting onto the indie scene with the haunting debut For Emma, Forever Ago. After this and Blood Bank, a still strong follow-up EP, when Vernon announced a new album would arrive in 2011, I was curious to see if he could keep up the good work. When Bon Iver, Bon Iver leaked on iTunes early in June, I took advantage of the slip-up, burnt a CD, and hit the road to see what it had in store. I was not disappointed, and soon this new album rocketed to one of my favorites of the year.
“Holocene,” the second single from this new album, paints a sonic wonderland with its softly moving guitar parts punctuated rolling snare drums. From a songwriting standpoint, it maintains constant control, stacking layer upon layer of instruments from glockenspiels to a choir of oboes, yet never losing its tight rhythm. In fact, the instruments rarely switch the patterns and melodies they begin with, and even when the song strips down to sparsely squeaking oboes in its bridge, it’s a surprisingly measured moment, like dimming the lights to augment the sparkle of the fireplace. All this is expertly amplified by Vernon’s impressionistic lyrics, which don’t so much tell a coherent story as color the song with their exchange of syllables. All this meticulous planning makes listening to “Holocene” a rewarding relief from the sloppy songwriting of Vernon’s pop music contemporaries.
As strong of a track as it is, however, I can’t help but feel it wilts a little without support from the rest of the album. An incredible cohesive work as a whole, both sonically and lyrically, Bon Iver, Bon Iver has no truly standout tracks. A single doesn’t manifest as easily as it did for For Emma; there is no “Skinny Love” for this album, a track which brought most listeners to Vernon in the first place. If one were to ask me what the strongest track on the album was upon first listen, I would have said “Wash.,” a somber and cold piano ballad that hearkens back to Vernon’s For Emma days while still pushing forward into new territory (the use of strings, etc). And still I feel as if the answer would be different for anyone; my friend’s favorite tracks vary widely across the board, from the reverb-laden “Hinnom, TX” to the album’s first single “Calgary.” While “Holocene” is a great track by itself, to call it Song of the Year would be unfair to the rest of the tracks on the album, as each of Vernon’s melodies has its own story to tell.