For the second half of September’s Albums of the Month, we wander a little more into the minefield of “albums everyone else is reviewing.” That doesn’t make them somehow un-excellent, unmoving, or unimportant… just that sometimes their music can feel so dissected that it is more advisable to use a light, empathetic touch. To leave some of the mystery there, for others to find.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
For all intents and purposes, Bon Iver is no longer an “indie” musician, whatever that means in a modern context. Justin Vernon might have been the one to blow up the word “indie,” or at least hammer the final nail into its coffin, blending the paints of pop stardom and independent reclusiveness together with the broadest brush.
I remember going to a party with a few friends when I lived in New York. It was in the Financial District, the buildings rising far higher than they should; it was during, or immediately after (damn, memory) Occupy. The party was for Bushmills whiskey, an American brand trying to capitalize on the whiskey resurgence with milennials over the last eight or so years. Elijah Wood was DJ’ing (he was a sport about making a Gollum-like face with my friend’s ring, at her request). It was, as you might expect, peak New York. The focus of the party, however, was to launch an ill-fated sponsorship deal between Justin Vernon and Bushmills, seemingly tying the growing brand of corporately owned dark liquor to the cachet of a husky Wisconsinite with a penchant for Bruce Hornsby and Auto-Tune in equal measure.
The party wasn’t Vernon’s first withdrawal from Bon Iver’s bank vault full of cred. At this point (2011) he had already spent weeks in Hawaii with Kanye West, working on West’s unassailable masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He had already appeared on the then Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform Bon Iver, Bon Iver standout and possibly greatest song of the 2010s “Holocene,” and a startlingly poignant cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” At this party, Vernon was the superstar, lending his light to a brand.
In accordance with the way 22, A Million presents itself to the world, you’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of Vernon in the claustrophobic bar. He was at a circle, surrounded by friends (presumably some hangers-on as well), and he was fed Bushmills at regular intervals. No glad-handing, no performance. Just a superstar doing his superstar part.
Vernon regrets the sponsorship; it was an aid to finishing his album without falling into debt. Yet the party feels of a piece, now, with the worldview Bon Iver’s magnificent new record, 22, A Million, takes. Purposefully dodging away from almost everything that made him famous in the first place, Vernon has crafted a spiritual successor to For Emma, Forever Ago. 22, A Million sounds created in isolation, a cabin perhaps — fair enough, a cabin with extremely sophisticated recording and musical equipment. The lyrics are more clearly heard than on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, yet no more clearly understood. Vernon still paints with an impressionistic brush, dashing together emotionally correct turns of phrase with little regard to whether they fit together to form a narrative (“caught daylight, goddamn right” on “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”).
22, A Million represents a peculiar dichotomy in the life of a specific type of pop star, a type that is becoming far more abundant this decade. Vernon, in many ways, is a white analogue to Frank Ocean. Both preternaturally impressive songwriters, Vernon’s For Emma and Ocean’s Nostalgia ULTRA were markers of superstardom, to be followed up by tentpole, capital letter Indie Rock / R&B second records. Yet from this popularity explosion, Vernon and Ocean have somewhat reluctantly reserved the whole of their lives. We still hear mysterious stories about Ocean serenading a date of Chance the Rapper’s. Just so, 22, A Million and Blond are considered zigs, beautiful and challenging in places, warm and embracing in others. Their superstar status weighing on their inner lives and outer perspective, Vernon and Ocean have instead retreated to the only activity they know how to be fully comfortable: making music. They are, in many ways, the apotheosis of a 2010s pop star: complex, warm in their love of retro flavors, ice cold in their embrace of the audience. From the garrulous 2000s — Kanye West, mostly — has arrived a new pop star. The specter of David Bowie looms, as it should.
22, A Million will likely frustrate many listeners who were hoping to get a “Bon Iver” record (not that that ever existed anyway… Bushmills just sold it to you). Those expecting the flannel warmness of the identity that has been successively sold as the “Bon Iver” aesthetic are certain to be let down. 22, A Million is, if not else, decidedly un-lumbersexual. The closest relationship to a Vernon work is probably the now prophetic Bon Iver Blood Bank EP, or Volcano Choir’s massive second record Repave. The last third of the record is its most accessible, “8 (circle)” most closely resembling “Beth/Rest” in its little R&B percussion and “00000 Million” is a simple enough piano number. Yet Vernon’s voice is almost never not inflected with Auto-Tune or layered on top of itself. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and “33 “God”” consciously dart away from expectation, “33” most especially. At points Vernon seems to delight in building something strange, percussive and fuzzed out over soulful piano plinks. “29 #Strafford Apts” is nearly room music, and wouldn’t seem out of place in the new hotels that are building up all over Milwaukee in response to Vernon’s hipster-ization of the Upper Midwest. 22, A Million is the sound of a man recognizing that he has affected great change in his life, and not being completely comfortable with the change.
Vernon will likely remain a superstar; there are enough soft-focus beautiful moments to likely satiate the two-thirds of listening audience crazy about previous Bon Iver singles. Just like Ocean, Vernon’s cache will decrease, likely a victory for both artists. What’s left, in a couple years, will just be 22, A Million, brilliant and uncompromising, untethered from the legacy of a modern pop star. Where For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver pushed a narrative of a growing superstar, 22, A Million retards the narrative to the point of stasis, and allows Vernon to wander back to reality as a musical entity, instead of a commodity. Bushmills profited off of Bon Iver; now it’s time for Justin Vernon to do the same.
RIYL: Volcano Choir, S. Carey, 808s and Heartbreak
Essential Tracks: “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “8 (circle),” “00000 Million,” “715 – CRΣΣKS”
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
It’s hard to imagine, baker’s dozen years on, that Hamilton Leithauser was once the frontman of a band considered to be one of the prototypical The OC-core bands. The Walkmen were early guests on the seminal Fox primetime soap, performing their then uber-hip hit “The Rat,” as well as a smattering of other, lesser hits. Bows + Arrows, the group’s massive sophomore album, hit at a time when the stately, buttoned up English-flecked punk of Franz Ferdinand and others was washing across the United States shores.
The Walkmen would go on to eschew the cachet The OC earned them, then somehow become a powerhouse of late-Aughts indie rock, buttoning up their colors further and taking trips down Route 66 to develop their sound out of the Brooklyn scene they were birthed from. You & Me, Lisbon, and titanic finale Heaven were three of the most consistently excellent indie rock records of their period, rivaled in consistency only by the superhumanly steady The National.
Yet Leithauser’s output seemed to be going the way of fellow early-Aughts superstar Paul Banks of Interpol, destined for solo efforts that offered middling simulacra of previous glories. Black Hours, his first solo effort, was pastiche of past sincerity, trading on admittedly strong songcraft to peddle tired ideas. Black Hours was enjoyable, forgettable.
Fortunately, Leithauser expanded his sphere of influence (if only slightly). Rostam Batmanglij, most famous for being the Blink-182 fan bass player of fellow NYC titans Vampire Weekend, joins Leithauser on his latest effort, a stately dozen shouty waltzes that recall bourgeois touchstones in pleasant and effortless ways. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is as slipshod and scattered as Black Hours, yet Batmanglij’s restless ear flecks the proceedings with a soul Leithauser has frequently lost whenever he leaves the safe space of The Walkmen.
First single “In a Blackout” is evidence most clearly. Spanish guitar echoes into a church, backed up softly by a choir. In any Leithauser solo record, this might suffice for great songcraft (and he might be right). But at the song’s third act turn, Batmanglij adds a cowpoke rhythm section, and Leithauser’s voice ascends to the heavens; it’s a transcendent moment, as if the group as it is currently has suddenly found its most comfortable spot.
The rest of the album dodges around these transcendent moments, sometimes hitting them right on the head (first verse of “Peaceful Morning,” the fun little turn of phrase as the album closes on “1959”). The bourgeois are on full display — seersucker is mentioned at least twice. Yet Batmanglij and Leithauser wisely temper their urges to stay in the upper middle class with healthy doses of empty bar country: “You Ain’t That Young Kid” is as different as Leithauser’s voice is ever going to sound, almost reaching a sad bastard country twang that’s pretty difficult to pull off.
Sometimes the album can descend into Leithauser shouting his words, striving for anthemic resonance, as if trying to reconcile the idea that I Had a Dream When You Were Mine will not be viewed as the revolutionary statement that early The Walkmen was. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – striving for greatness amidst a somewhat tired genre isn’t something to sneeze at. That they reach such great heights is testament to the two mens’ songcraft and their effortless partnership. The weary romanticism of late period The Walkmen is still of full display, Leithauser has, luckily, found another able-eared co-conspirator to help him realize his vision.
RIYL: Late period The Walkmen (think Heaven), Early period Vampire Weekend
Essential Tracks: “In a Black Out,” “1959,” “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” “Sick as a Dog”
Other Albums to Check Out
Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows – Sometimes folk doesn’t need to be so freaky, or so different. Billie Marten takes from her compatriots in Marissa Nadler, Laura Marling and Lady Lamb to create something warm, electric and delicate. While it trades in a folk that can feel sometimes too fit for coffeeshop chains, Marten’s buttery smooth voice, and her talents with an electric guitar (shocker!) keep things from feeling too “pumpkin spice-y.” Don’t miss “La Lune,” “Milk + Honey,” or “Hello Sunshine.”
LVL UP – Return to Love – It’s become such a cliché as to be toxic to artistic creativity, yet LVL UP nut up and proudly wear their “we’re gonna rip off the 90s and you’re gonna love it.” Turns out, they’re right. From the moment “Hidden Driver” bursts forth with its laconic echo of Neutral Milk Hotel to the fantastic couple of “Pain” and “The Closing Door,” combining the droll pleasures of The Silver Jews and the anthemic, all encompassing 90s-ness of Guided By Voices, LVL UP take their band name seriously and establish themselves as shameless, excellent purveyors of an indie rock rapidly become kitsch.
Slaughter Beach, Dog – Welcome – Jake Ewald has had quite a year. Mere months after establishing his unique songwriter voice on the stronger half of Modern Baseball’s great Holy Ghost, Ewald returns with a “conceptually inspired” album alternating perspectives among fictional people in a fictional city. The results are revelatory, and at times more affecting and powerful than anything Modern Baseball have done to date. “Mallrat Semi-Annual” somehow out-pop-punks his pop-punk band, “Jobs” is the best Say Anything off-the-wall song made since … Was a Real Boy, and “Drinks” is borderline alt-country, using slide guitar to excellent effect. It’s an arm-spanning effort from Ewald, who would’ve been forgiven for taking the rest of the year off after Holy Ghost. But the pop-punk life never stops, and Welcome will do a lot for Ewald’s authorial cred.
Johanna Warren – Gemini I – In contrast with Billie Marten, sometimes it’s better to get freakier. Johanna Warren, who’s excellent Nümün shocked many with its Joanna Newsom-ness, releases the first of a pair (get it) albums about the dichotomy of being a Gemini. She sometimes gets lost in her own experiments (“Circlenot Astraight” is a bit of a misfire, if not narratively), but there are just as many clear-eyed evocations of greatness (“There is a Light”). There’s the matter of the second half of her pair of albums, but the first set is a pleasant, soft-spoken freaky folk trinket.