WVAU Top Music of 2011: #3

Maeve McDermott, Jesse Paller

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#3 Album: Bon Iver – Bon Iver

“This is not a place,‰” Justin Vernon coos on the album’s glacial introduction, “Perth.‰” Bon Iver’s first album (2008’s haunting For Emma, Forever Ago) is largely associated with its creation during his heartbroken retreat to an isolated northern cabin, a detail that adds special poignancy to its spare beauty. But Bon Iver’s second self-titled album has no place, no context. It finds Vernon removed from his isolation, severed from a painful past, and placed in a world with more money, time, and support to create his art. The ensuing album one of history’s greatest celebrations of the power of absolute music. Vernon himself said that this is the music he had been waiting to make since his childhood.

A love letter to music, the album contains the entire scope of music’s best qualities. At times, it is perfectly simple. Others, It is grand and complex. It is subtle and it is completely, exuberantly overdone. It is vast, but it is also intimate. There is no limit on the music- any number of guitars, basses, horns, keys and even drum sets are used to fully iterate every possible aspect of every chord. Coupled with Vernon’s knack for poignant, sweeping chord progressions, the effect is devastating.

And then there’s his voice. Every music reviewer has picked their own words for it: “wounded,‰” “soaring,‰” “keening,‰” “expressive,‰” “enchanting,‰” even “unfamiliar‰” (I read a lot of music reviews). But it is all of these, and it is none of them. There’s no word that can even begin to capture the blessing that Justin Vernon received with his voice. His lower tones are warm and comforting, but his falsetto is heartbreaking; you listen and you feel your soul getting chills. The lyrics on this album are largely abstract and impressionistic; they mostly exist simply to allow his voice to bring you along with it. Not to say the words are meaningless; when he proclaims “and at once I knew I was not magnificent‰” (a lyric for the ages) among the gentle sunbeams of “Holocene,‰” and the music swells around the words as if to disprove this humbly arrogant claim, you can’t help but feel taken along with it.

And if the music disproves this lyric, I agree with it. Because this album is magnificent. “Perth‰” is like the onset of a storm in a giant desert, with the spare wind whipping up a piece of trash and an old memory, before gigantic guitar chords strike like the very lightning and thunder of the heavens and tear your soul asunder. “Towers‰” warms you like a fire, and the feeling from listening to “Michicant‰” is comparable to finding an old letter from a lover lost in the past, reading it and feeling the old emotion spring up within you. The ethereal piano in “Wash.‰” is like the escape of a glorious dream in the cold morning.

I heard “Calgary‰” in a restaurant once, and suddenly every person around me looked like a saint. And that’s what this album does. It makes the world feel like a better place than it really is. Closer “Beth/Rest,‰” with an electric keyboard straight from the ballads of the ’80s, does this best. Yes, it is cheesy. Yes, it is unrealistic. But that’s what we need. We need sounds like this, sounds so over-the-top beautiful that they seem too good to be true, but exist anyway. That is what this album does. It encapsulates beauty and expresses it with beautiful music, and there is nothing you can do but sit and allow it to overcome you and carry you through every emotion of the human heart. You will live Bon Iver feeling tiny next to it, but, antithetically, with a heart the size of the world.

By Jesse Paller

#3 Song: Battles – “Ice Cream”

To say that Battles flaunt their whimsical side on “Ice Cream‰” would be an understatement, as the math-rockers trade in their usual intricate, grinding rhythms and dissonant melodies for one of the most unexpectedly playful songs of the year.

The hyper-detailed nature of the prog rock Battles is known for making can be distracting ‰ÛÒ not necessarily in a bad way, but just in the sense that on both of the band‰’s recordings and especially live, part of enjoying Battles is marveling at the music‰’s complexities. It‰’s a testament to the band‰’s talent that for their heavy focus on technically intricate music, they can still churn out one of the most groovy pop songs we heard in 2011.

“Ice Cream‰” is pure sugar-high bliss, and it‰’s immediately obvious from the eyebrow-raising first fifty seconds of huffing and puffing in the song‰’s intro that Battles is trying something new. And silliness suits Battles just fine, as they complement Matias Aguayo‰’s nonsensical lyrics with bouncy steel drum-soundalike synths to create a deceptively multifaceted and perfectly danceable track. With “Ice Cream,‰” for probably the first and last time in the band‰’s career, Battles makes it sound easy.

By Maeve McDermott