Justin Vernon recently announced that he’d soon be hanging up the 100 percent cotton, hand-woven workshirt of a band that is Bon Iver. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, he said, “I’m winding it down. I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering.” That metaphor makes absolutely zero sense—you don’t turn off a faucet because you want to discover more water a really long time from now using magic brain powers. You turn off a faucet because you don’t need to use water any more.
This is the problem with Bon Iver. They are in the unfortunate cultural position of being a band that people are predisposed to hate—the pleasant but ultimately boring band that makes an accessible album that people freak out over for a while. Then, they’re forced to tour gigantic venues, but because their music only makes sense within the context of, like, a Starbucks, they end up being boring live unless you know all the words. Most of the time, the people who front these bands are affable about their newfound success, grateful even. Not Justin Vernon. He’s mad he wins Grammies, mad he sells records, mad everyone thinks he lived in an igloo in Vermont for a winter or some shit, mad his nonexistent Special Feelings get interpreted by legions of fans as their own nonexistent Special Feelings. Vernon isn’t some bearded woods philosopher here to rescue us from Sadtown. He’s just some bro with a headband. It’s not his fault that he’s in the position he’s in, but his band still sucks.
I have a friend whose most listened-to album of 2011 was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, because he worked at a chicken wing place and his boss wanted to play the most inoffensive music he could find. His thoughts on the album could be summed up by, “pretty.” To call Bon Iver a one-trick pony would be inaccurate, because (a) they are a band and not a horse, and (b) their music actually has a shit-ton of sonic variation. The first Bon Iver album was recorded by Vernon by himself in a cabin in the woods when he was preparing for the zombie apocalypse (I don’t actually know the story and have no desire to learn it), and the second album was written and recorded with his band, so it’s naturally hella-more fleshed out. In theory, the two albums couldn't be more different, but when you listen to them, the only conclusion you draw from both is, “Wow, this is pretty pleasant.” It’s in one ear, out the other. To put it another way: no one has ever fucked to Bon Iver. The moment the Hornsbytastic sound waves of “Perth” hit your ears, genitals, whatever, the fucking experience is transmogrified. Your feelings kick in, and all of a sudden you’re “making” “love.” One cannot thrust to it. One can only ease things into other things. Frankly, it’s too much pressure. What if you don’t even like the other person? While that’s fine and all, the whole musical oeuvre of Bon Iver is hokily emotional to the point of affectation.
Perhaps what’s most maddening about Bon Iver’s existence is there are a million acts who are pretty much destined to be less popular than them. To be quite honest with you, often the methods that determine “popularity” in the music world are totally constructed. A band like Bon Iver becomes super-duper popular because songs from their first album catch the attention of some publicist somewhere, who then pitches the record to popular indie music sites (not naming names here, but the big one rhymes with Fitchpork), who then cover and review the band’s record, and then suddenly they’ve found an audience because of that coverage. But the thing is, why them? There are a million bands, and the process of acquiring a publicist is often a nepotistic, cynical one that costs money that many musicians don’t have. The only thing separating Justin Vernon from Bobby Coffeeshop is he’d been in previous bands and got lucky enough to make an only-okay record under a set of circumstances that a publicist looked at and realized just screamed, “NARRATIVE!” The moment you think you should throw on For Emma, Forever Ago, remember that you could just listen to something by Califone or Chromatics or hell, even a dude like James Ferraro and it’s gonna be better, more interesting, and maybe even more fuck-to-able than anything Bon Iver could ever come up with. Not to be all, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” or anything, but seriously Bon Iver, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. You’re the worst thing to happen to guitar music since Blessid Union of Souls.