Bon Iver’s provocative eighties-embracing “Beth/Rest”

There are lots of good reasons to enjoy Bon Iver’s new self-titled album. It bridges the gap between Justin Vernon’s cabin-in-the-woods-recorded For Emma, Forever Ago and the more adventurous projects he’s preoccupied himself with in the years since its release (from Volcano Choir to GAYNGS to his work on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). His embrace of autotune alongside his already-robotic voice solidifies his as one of the most unique and interesting vocalists of our time. And it’s a great mood record, with songs that ebb and flow through glorious, slow builds.

But the reason I LOVE Bon Iver is because of one song in particular: album closer “Beth/Rest.”

I say that even as I haven’t totally come to terms with whether the song is actually any good. But on a sheer cultural level, “Beth/Rest” is completely awesome. That’s because it represents a huge, death-threatening leap into a chasm that quote-unquote “indie” artists have been dancing around for some time: the embrace of 1980s soft rock.

This trend is not new; synthesizers began sneaking their way into rock music once again at some point past decade (think the open Duran Duran-isms of The Killers’ debut), but the trend soon moved past referencing bands and artists that people would consider “cool” and into non-canonized artists that most older music critics had hoped had been relegated to the dustbin of history. Two key touchstones of this trend: Phil Collins and Hall & Oates.

On the former, check out this clip from a Norwegian music show, this particular segment called “Don’t Fight It, Phil It!” Its participants: members of Yeasayer, Sleigh Bells and Neon Indian, three of the most buzzed-about blog bands of the past two years. For Phil Collins—a guy who’s retiring from music, in part, because he thinks everyone hates him—receiving such outward support represents a pretty vast sea change.

Hall & Oates, in contrast, have welcomed their newfound appeal. Daryl Hall has even performed with one of his new champions, Montreal’s Chromeo, like Bonnaroo. When I saw Gaslight Anthem play in Montreal last year, guitarist Alex Rosamilia had a vinyl copy of Hall & Oates’ greatest hits on his amp. And let’s not forget the impressive list of artists who have been part of Hall’s “Live from Daryl’s House” web video series.

A couple quick thoughts on what’s happening here: first, the music landscape today is flattened. The “class divide” between mainstream and alternative/underground has been rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rise of democratizing Internet platforms as well as the collapse of the commercial divide between major labels and independents (let us not forget that the year’s only true blockbuster album—Adele’s 21—is on XL, the same label as Vampire Weekend and The XX). Furthermore, the rise of a singles-based download culture has made it easier than ever before to separate music from its contexts and apply it in our own lives however we see fit. This means that “guilty pleasures” lose their guilt: one is able to enjoy a Katy Perry song without embracing the entire culture around it (artwork, celebrity, radio machine, the awful ballads that flesh out the album).

But what’s interesting is that we’re not just applying this mentality to present-day music: today’s teens and twenty-somethings are diving back into rock and pop’s back catalogue and recontextualizing older hits, in the process stripping them of their original cultural connotations. While often dismissed as “retro”—a term that implies some degree of an ironic relationship, as well as a nostalgic one—this trend actually represents a changing, more nuanced relationship with the past, best epitomized by the adoption of “Don’t Stop Believin’” by a generation who wasn’t alive when it was a hit. It’s as Paul Gainge writes in his essay “Nostalgia and Style in Retro America”:

The aestheticization of nostalgia has emerged in a cultural moment able to access, circulate, and reconfigure the textual traces of the past in new and dynamic ways…and that has generally disjointed nostalgia from any specific meaning located in the past.

There’s something empowering about this idea – it suggests that songs, albums or bands that were given perhaps an unfair shake in their own time can eventually be re-evaluated on merits that are based on the quality of their work, not the cultural dynamics that surrounded it. Not that this ahistoricism doesn’t have its complications—the selectivity involved in reviving the reputation of an artist like Phil Collins can’t be ignored—but it suggests the potential for musicality to persist long after the fashions change.

So, to 1980s soft rock, then: if we accept that Phil Collins and Hall & Oates had some worthwhile songs, and maybe even some enjoyable sounds, how far should we take this idea into the music of the 21st century?

Up until now, the album that perhaps asked this question most aggressively was Destroyer’s Kaputt, released earlier this year. Yes, the artists in that Collins video I mentioned may appreciate his work as a rhythmic influence, but what Dan Bejar did on Kaputt was attempt to mash some of the most glaringly obvious 1980s soft rock touchstones—the smooth jazz saxophones, the Avalon-era Roxy Music keyboards, and what the hell, some flute—into his esoteric, unique songwriting. The result is one of the year’s best albums, more than impressive enough to overcome whatever barriers listeners may put up against those sounds.

That said, there are plenty of structural and sonic elements more in line with modern indie rock for Kaputt‘s listeners to latch onto, meaning that it doesn’t require a full commitment to that era’s kitsch. Morevoer, the album’s best song (the 11-minute “Bay of Pigs”) happens to be the track that moves the furthest from that aesthetic. And most of Bon Iver plays along in the same fashion: there’s influences and signifiers of 1980s soft rock, but they’re tamed somewhat by other elements, from the acoustic guitars and banjos on the one end of the technology scale to Vernon’s embrace of autotune on the other.

But “Beth/Rest” is different. “Best/Rest” like an ALL-IN poker bet on the 1980s. The opening keyboard chords, heavily reverberated, sound like they’ve been ripped off a Bruce Hornsby record, or like they’re being performed by Michael McDonald. The super-clean guitar riffs that float through occasionally sound like they come straight from the fingers of Journey’s Neal Schon. I’m not sure if that’s Montreal’s brilliant Colin Stetson on the saxophone or not (he’s credited as playing on the album) but whoever it is, it might as well be Kenny G, by the sounds of it. Even if there are signifiers of 1980s soft rock earlier on the album, “Beth/Rest” is such a dramatic embrace of the sound that I felt compelled to check my iTunes the first time it came up: “Umm…did this switch to shuffle all on its own?”

Is the song pretty? I think so. Does it providing a fitting end to the album? Probably. But I can’t help but feel like I have to shake off two decades of ingrained gut reactions to truly appreciate it. It’s like a test more than a song: if this is where the soft rock road goes, am I willing to go this far?

And that’s why I think the track is kind of amazing. Because as the logical endpoint of a decade of musical trends, it’s like a put-up or shut-up rallying cry to my generation: “Okay, you like the 1980s? You want a little kitsch in your iTunes library? Fine. Let’s take that to its logical conclusion and see if you’re still on-board. Let’s go ALL THE WAY.”

In my case, I’m not sure if I really care to figure out if the song is any good or not: I love it precisely because it serves as a culmination of the 1980s revival while, at the same time, challenging the revival’s proponents by presenting its tenants in all their choke-down-the-gloss glory. In its excess, “Beth/Rest” asks: is this really what you want?

If only all music were so daringly provocative.

(Listen to “Beth/Rest” over at the Hype Machine.)

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4 responses to “Bon Iver’s provocative eighties-embracing “Beth/Rest”

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt reflects on the lost summer of 2011 « McNutt Against the Music·

  2. Pingback: My Favourite Albums of 2011 at i might be wrong·

  3. Pingback: “Tears are Not Enough”: A look back Canada’s double fist-pump charity anthem | McNutt Against the Music·

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