Justin Vernon did not perform at last weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, but on display there was so much of what fans have been debating about his divisive sophomore record as Bon Iver. From contemporaries like Fleet Foxes — fellow delicate indie-folkies who faced difficult challenges on their follow-up but succeeded — to the many acts (Destroyer, Twin Shadow, Ariel Pink) now mining this newly popular vein of early-’80s, soft-rock sonics, it seems much of the indie-rock world is wrestling with a lot of the same things giving Vernon fits on “Bon Iver” (Jagjaguwar) (), out now.
I say “fits,” which implies movement, excitement, passion. Alas, despite a few moments of murky beauty, none of that is on “Bon Iver.” Vernon is clearly trying to detour from the gentle, backwoods approach that made Bon Iver’s debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago” such a breakout hit (to the point of attracting Kanye West’s attention for collaboration). That in itself is admirable — we want our Nells to stay in the cabin, but it’s always best when they start talking and take on a life of their own — but it seems Vernon took the turn before he knew where he wanted to go, and he sounds utterly lost.
The tracks on “Bon Iver” fade in and out, one after another, nearly all of them built on dual-tracked falsetto singing and chilly, indistinct synth sounds. Some of the old folk tones bubble up occasionally and the regular use of steel guitar adds texture and perspective to what are otherwise claustrophobic and flat compositions. Monotonies like “Holocene” and “Wash.” establish their languid tones and just leave it at that. A bit of jangly guitar enlivens “Towers,” a song that finally resolves into a peppery shuffle and seems to get off the futon and move about a bit, perhaps because its lyrics describe some romantic “mischief,” spiritual conflict and especially summer heat — a welcome respite from the rest of the album’s mauvais iver.
Then there’s the denouement, the loved-or-hated final track “Beth/Rest.” Throughout the record there are whispers of saxophone, subtle threats of what’s to come, and here they amble forth in noodling solos and Neal Schon guitar parts that sound like the score to a very pensive and pivotal mid-movie scene for Emilio Estevez. But that’s not what’s so disheartening — ’80s cheese can be plenty fun and fresh, but here Vernon just turns on the oldies radio in the background and mutters over it. Nothing is taken in hand, nothing is wrestled with. Ethereal vocals, ghostly keys, occasional beats — the basic recipe could’ve cooked up something between James Blake and How to Dress Well, but there’s a crucial missing ingredient: soul.
I’ve already seen this record reviewed as everything from “a stroke of genius” to “a terrible disappointment,” but the latter is sadly true.
In concert: Bon Iver performs July 24 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets: $35, chicagotheatre.com.
One thing markedly improved on “Bon Iver” is an oblique mystery to the lyrics, a lack of directness. In a recent interview, Vernon cited his “big influence” here: shadowy Americana singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. “[Richard’s] words are just about a sound and barely about meaning, but I could find all these crazy meanings in there.” Despite Buckner having a lot to talk about on his first record in five years — delayed by computer crashes, a failed movie score and, er, a murder investigation — “Our Blood” (Merge) (), out Aug. 6, continues the peripheral approach to elliptical discussions of doomed romance and danger lurking. The words mix with the spare but determined arrangements — often just a patient guitar strumming and a tense electric piano nodding chords, or pedal steel by Buddy Cage and percussion by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley — to create that Buckner allure. The questions — what’s he saying? what’s that sound? do I dare go in there? — only pull you forward.