It had to happen: Toto, Sade, and the Blow Monkeys have gotten their due. Thanks to Ariel Pink’s Before Today, Destroyer’s Kaputt and Bon Iver’s new eponymous album, the most fervently untrodden musical paths of the eighties now boast fresh footprints. Keening vocals struggling to articulate romantic and/or existential vagaries dominate these albums; their musical correlative relies on rippling, “tasteful,” guitar and keyboard chords, the occasional sax solo, and stately rhythms that flirt with indolence (I wrote an article about sophisti-pop a few years ago). Although Destroyer and Bon Iver in particular want sounds and instruments on their records that we haven’t heard since “Digging Your Scene” and “Valerie” hit the top fifteen, there is an important (de)evolutionary difference: because these acts maintain a tentative, almost nervous attachment to their lo-fi origins, their albums project sophistication instead of embracing it. Mimicry or mere replication they don’t want, and as a result a gulf between ambition and results opens as cavernously as the sound of a gated drum through car speakers.
Bon Iver’s approach is the most unusual. Synthesizing the necessarily histrionic qualities of eighties sophisti-pop and the inwardness of post-Elliot Smith acoustic folk produces songs that don’t know whether to float or settle. Patterns emerge, cohere, disperse. Frontman Justin Vernon picks out chords or sings phrases in a falsetto, sometimes disrupting the attempts at prettiness with a couple bars of distortion. The approach works best on “Calgary,” which begins with a sustained synth line that I swear come out of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring.” The clanging electric piano and suspended notes on “Beth/Rest” could have played over the closing credits of the Rob Lowe-Demi Moore farrago …About Last Night. All that’s missing is, of course, a sax (skip backwards to “Minnesota, WI”). Where Destroyer’s Dan Bejar mumbles through an admixture of slogans, lines that sound like quotes from articles you think you’ve read, and uncooked aphorisms, Vernon hasn’t thought through his angst enough to impose order on what is ultimately, to quote Wallace Stevens, sadness without cause.