Bon Iver albums always take me a while.
Well, I say always, but really just since the delightful left turn this former folkie took with his second (and self-titled) effort. In 39 minutes, Justin Vernon dispensed with all that cabin-in-the-Wisconsin-woods mythology that had surrounded For Emma, Forever Ago and emerged as a fascinating artist with a command of the studio. I wasn’t sure what to make of Bon Iver at first, especially the ‘80s soundtrack ballad that closes it out, but now I absolutely love it.
Since then it’s become clear that Vernon has more interest in making Peter Gabriel-esque sonic journeys than he does in returning to anyone’s idea of what he should be or sound like. It takes him a while to make Bon Iver records – only two have surfaced since 2011 – so it makes sense that it should take a while to absorb them. He certainly doesn’t make it easy, adorning these songs with obscure, often nonsensical poetry and then saddling them with symbols or single letters for titles. He’s essentially removed some of the easiest ways in, which is why his work tends to need some time to settle before I truly feel it.
I say all that to warn you that I have only heard the fourth Bon Iver album, i,i, twice. It has not had time to work its magic. But so far, I like it quite a bit. In some ways it is less experimental than its predecessor, while still maintaining that patchwork sonic quality – there’s a new surprise every few seconds on this thing, and I always respond well to that. I’m not sure if any of these songs would work as well outside of this multicolored production, and I don’t remember any melody lines yet, but for now, Vernon’s layered vocals and inspired sense of shape and place carry me through.
This is the first time Vernon has used the same basic band two albums in a row, and that lends i,i some familiarity – quite a lot of this clearly spung from the same brains that made 22, A Million. The guest list is noteworthy: to name a few, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak provides vocals, Rob Moose writes some lovely string arrangements, and Bruce Hornsby crops up on “U (Man Like),” returning the favor for Vernon’s appearance on Absolute Zero. Hornsby is another interesting touchstone here – some of these songs, and some of Vernon’s vocals, remind me of Bruce’s work, and both artists have proven to be remarkably restless.
Speaking of restless, just the first song, “iMi,” will leave your head spinning. There are 11 credited writers (for a thing that lasts 3:16), James Blake plays keyboards, there are tons of strings and horns, and Vernon’s voice is processed and chopped to bits. The quieter parts are quickly overwhelmed with sound, and when the Vernon Overdub Choir sings “how much longer,” it’s a pretty wonderful moment. Similarly great is the ending, in which the horns drown out everything in exultation. This is kind of folksy, kind of electronic, kind of jazzy, and kind of radio-pop, but it never stays any of those things for long.
The record as a whole follows suit. “Naeem” brings in a gospel influence, and a refrain (“I can hear, I can hear crying”) that stands as one of the record’s most memorable, over a musical bed that builds and builds magnificently. “Jelmore” is an off-kilter omnichord dream, its fragile underpinning threatening to fray and fall apart at any second. “Marion” is the closest Vernon has come to his For Emma sound since then, all acoustic guitars and harmonies, while “Salem” might be my favorite thing here: there’s a potentially cheesy ‘80s-ness to it that really works for me.
Again, these are all first impressions, and a record as dense and well-built as i,i will need some time to sink in. But I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m on my third listen, and the extended saxophone solo on “Sh’Diah” is filling my soul right now. I’m looking forward to truly knowing this record, and discovering its pleasures over time.
Bat for Lashes, on the other hand, has always been immediate. From the first strains of “Daniel,” the first song of hers I heard, Natasha Khan had me in the palm of her hand. I love her sense of atmosphere and her affinity for Kate Bush-style ‘80s art-pop. I’ve never felt let down by any of her records, though Two Suns remains a favorite. She dove deep into her cinematic tendencies with 2016’s The Bride, a concept record about a woman whose husband dies on the way to their wedding. It was dark and yet superbly beautiful by the end.
Her new one, Lost Girls, is no less cinematic. The title is a direct reference to The Lost Boys, and the music began life as the score to a film about bikers in an ‘80s Los Angeles ravaged by vampires. As you might expect, this is Khan’s most ‘80s record, through and through. From the synth tones to the thin funk guitars to the bongos-in-a-box percussion, much of this sounds like it stepped right out of MTV in 1986.
It’s also awesome. It steps well beyond pastiche into full-blooded artistic statement – this is a love letter to the washed-out movie landscape of the me decade, particularly those made-for-teens fantasy movies that captivated my generation. Some of these songs conjured up images of those movies in my mind. Hell, there’s an instrumental called “Vampires” that sounds all but intended to bring forth the spirit of Corey Feldman. This is the kind of record that you know will include a blaring saxophone at one point, and there it is.
Khan has written some of her most immediate songs here to match the production. Something like “So Good” could be a more menacing Cyndi Lauper song, and could easily make its home on ‘80s radio. “The Hunger” is a powerhouse, its ringing organ setting the stage for a pulsing synth bass right out of Depeche Mode. (I’m not absolutely sure that it’s about vampires, but come on, it’s about vampires.) The optimistic “Safe Tonight” has traces of Yazoo in its DNA, but really it’s just a very good Bat for Lashes tune. And “Mountains” is a bit of a masterpiece, the emotional heart of this album and a song I will be singing for a long time.
It’s hard to predict what will inspire artists. I certainly didn’t expect much from Khan’s vampire movie album, but it turns out that Kiefer Sutherland with a mullet is exactly the kind of kickstart she needed. Lost Girls leaps to life, and it serves as a thesis statement on the artistic validity of an era and a genre that is often critically dismissed. If it wasn’t obvious from her previous work, Khan loves this music, and if she decides from here on to devote herself to this style, I won’t complain. I’ll just be huddled up, crying and listening to “Mountains” and watching out the window for the undead.
That’s it for this week. Not absolutely sure what I will write about next week. Let’s find out together. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.