The Music Club, 2011

Music Club 2011: Is the Worst Poet in the History of Pop Music the Guy From Bon Iver?
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 28 2011 5:33 PM

The Music Club, 2011


Is the worst poet in the history of pop music the guy from Bon Iver?

Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon
Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon

Photo by Simon Appelblad

Jonah, Ann, Nitsuh, Carl,

I’d planned to spend some time this entry taking a whack at Bon Iver, but Carl has done the dirty work for me. I’ll simply second what Carl said: Justin Vernon can obviously make pretty sounds, but his marble-mouthed singing, and the drooping-wet-sock formlessness of his songs, are maddening. As for the lyrics, they’re gibberish:

Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright
above my brother, I and tangled spines
we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
now to know it in my memory:

… and at once I knew I was not magnificent
high above the highway aisle
(jagged vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles

When I hear that song—and I do, most mornings, at my local espresso joint—I wonder: Is Vernon the worst poetaster in the history of popular music? Is he simply incapable of writing a lyric that makes sense—that tells a story, conveys a recognizable human emotion, in English or Elvish or any other language?

Maybe, but you have to hand it to the guy: He’s gobbeldygooked his way to glory. I don’t understand, though, how critics can give Vernon a pass—can fail to demand a semblance of meaning from songs delivered with such shuddering self-importance. Not everyone can be Jay-Z or Rhymin’ Simon. But at a certain point we need to stick up for the Five Ws, or we may as well curl up with a Windham Hill box set and call it a day. I get why Pitchfork would reward this jivecomprehensible lyrics: so bourgeois—but I hope the Grammy voters don’t give make the same mistake.

Actually, I’m pretty sure Adele will run the table at the Grammys. Ann makes a good case for Adele’s virtues, musical and otherwise, but I think 21 hews to retro-soul boilerplate more than Ann admits; I found it a predictable exercise in style. When it comes to leather-lunged young Englishwomen, I’m partial to Florence Welch, whose lashing rock-gospel anthems feel fresher, grander, more goofily unhinged than Adele’s. Welch has some Bono in her: the shameless ambition to tackle the big stuff—sex and death, God and the devil—and tunes that can turn the ridiculous into the sublime. Listen to “Leave My Body,” where she roars out a vision of transcendence through physical and spiritual surrender: “I’m gonna leave my body/ (Moving up to higher ground)/ I’m gonna lose my mind.” Welch also had the year’s best dress.

While we’re on the subject of lionesses: a quick word about Beyoncé’s 4, which seems to me an exception to Carl’s complaints about chart-pop. (“Current pop … seems to ramble sloppily, all text-message chatty—a side effect of persona dominating nearly every other tool in the box.”) 4 is a meticulously made, musically idiosyncratic album about, of all things, conjugal contentment. There’s no mistaking the force and originality of Beyoncé’s music. (The M.I.A.-manqué “Run the World (Girls)” aside, 4 doesn’t sound like anything else out there. No 4/4 Eurothump here!) But her politics are often overlooked.

Beyoncé tosses out so many messages, it can be hard to get a grip on her meaning: In “Countdown” she’s simultaneously Roberta Flack (“Oh, killing me softly”), Betty Draper (“All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinnertime”), and Kali, Giver and Destroyer of Life. But for a decade and a half, Beyoncé has represented African-American women’s anger and power like no one else in popular culture. And today she’s one half of a historically unprecedented showbiz partnership—a demonstrably egalitarian black royal couple rivaled only by the duo in the White House. There’s a lot more to Beyoncé’s swagged-out happy-marriage anthems than first meets the ear.

There’s so much more I’d hoped to get to: the Pistol Annies, whose album sounds better to me every day, and a few words in praise of old fogies (the Beastie Boys) and older fogies (Nick Lowe and Paul Simon). I also wanted to float a Grand Unified Theory of Swagger-Jagger, in partial answer to Ann’s plaintive whither rawk? query. But the day grows short, and 2012 is revving up. We’ve already got a new Gaga single to reckon with. So I’ll stop here and pass the baton to Jonah.

See you here next year. Or at the Van Halen reunion show. Whichever comes first.




The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson Resigns

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.


How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Sports Show by and About Women

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 4:15 PM The Trials of White Boy Rick A Detroit crime legend, the FBI, and the ugliness of the war on drugs.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 3:01 PM Netizen Report: Hong Kong Protests Trigger Surveillance and Social Media Censorship
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.