The new Bon Iver record just doesn’t sound like anything else. Nowadays it seems that’s the last frontier: unique originality. There’s only so many notes. You’re not going to think of anything that Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein didn’t already come up with. Everything else is Beatlesque or ripping off the Stones (who were rip-off artists).
So while it used to be good enough to just sound like something that was already considered great and successful, at some point being completely new and “indescribable” was the new benchmark. It wasn’t enough to combine genres, the best artists could defy them.
It probably started with invention of hip-hop and rap music in the late 70’s and it’s subsequent explosion in the 80’s. Sure, they literally and physically combined genres, but it didn’t sound like anything else ever. Later, Radiohead came along. Their earliest work was guitar-drums driven, but they morphed into something from the future. Something indescribable. You might make the case that more recent critics darlings My Morning Jacket have that “dude you just gotta hear ’em” factor that would put them in this category.
Interestingly, both Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James have something else in common: they like to do a lot of their work in falsetto, their high vocals often serving as either an attraction for fans or a deal-breaker for the listeners that just don’t like it.
Wait a minute…. Fleet Foxes, an even more recent It Band That Everybody Loves, also has some really high voices too! And while they’ve drawn the inevitable CSNY and Byrds comparisons, they really don’t sound like anything. Certainly not much like most popular music out there these days. They’re like a soundtrack for doing yard work at a renaissance festival.
All these groups, as beloved as they might be by most critics and many fans, they all also fall onto a lot of people’s short list of “Bands I Just Don’t Get.” You hear that mostly with Radiohead, but also with My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes. People will assume/admit that they must be “good” and for whatever reason they don’t get them.
And somehow that brings us back to Bon Iver. Justin Vernon also has that love-it-or-hate-it voice that is often operating in the upper register or falsetto. For Emma, Forever Ago, his debut album (the meteoric rise, remote cabin-to-Kanye success story retold everywhere else), attracted lazy “Blood on the Tracks meets Nebraska” analogies and hyperbole. At the time, and even after several tries (everyone said the album was brilliant, I really want to like this), I just didn’t get it (eventually I did). Emma could at least be pegged as an “acoustic affair” from a singer/songwriter, but this new one doesn’t sound like anything. In the world. (Summary: I like it a lot; best served with headphones.)
So, in my Seinfeld voice, What’s the deeeeal with rock critics? Do they just love high voices? Do they assign genius to that which they can’t describe? Radiohead, MMJ, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver. Are you seeing the pattern here? Or is the falsetto vocals simply a coincidence and maybe it’s the indescribable “unique originality” that they have in common? I don’t know. You just gotta hear ’em.