Some people really hate this song. For these folks, listening to Bon Iver's "Beth/Rest" (the final track on this year's self-titled LP) is a visceral roller coaster ride through a valley of repressed memories—it prompts negative associations with certain songs, pop culture minutiae, and faint semi-dark impressions of times spent alone in high school with nothing good to listen to on the car radio. The first thing they hear is that compressed Korg M1 keyboard sound that reminds them of something like this. The song then settles into a mid-tempo ballad groove which takes them back here. And soon after—and this is the last straw—the smooth, warm '90s sitcom-sounding saxophone tucks itself right beneath Justin Vernon's echoed tenor and there's only this on their mind. It's everything that hasn't been cool for a long time—or ever.
"Beth/Rest" has turned out to be such a divisive force that it has the power to alienate casual Bon Iver listeners in conversation. I have found that based on your allegiance to this song, you're marked either an unconditional fan or you must find the whole project overrated and tedious.
This whole conversation is interesting from the perspective of uttering "Bon Iver" and, depending who you're talking to, soliciting such a broad range of meanings and reactions: "hip", "overrated", "ironic", "sentimental." All baggage that becomes less and less about music as Vernon's pop cultural mystique continues to evolve. Polarized reactions to anything can make pretty good fodder for blog posts. I just worry—and this might sound crazy—that a lot of people will discount Bon Iver's music before giving it a chance. Which usually happens once someone tosses out the Michael McDonald comparison.
Hearing Vernon's solo piano take of "Beth/Rest" made me realize that it actually might be the simplest song on the album. Yes, that keyboard sound, significantly, sits in the place of an acoustic guitar or piano. But this is to point out that at its core, this is a sweet, innocent guy-with-guitar song. It's something that you might have heard on his first record, For Emma, Forever Ago. The biggest difference to me here is that he's achieved something really special through his marriage of the contours of his voice with those of his writing. The lyrics are indistinct, but their affect is warm. I think you can hear this so well in the acoustic version of "Beth/Rest".
This song's '80s (and early-90's) reference points are probably unavoidable, but these shouldn't really be endpoints for our judgments of "Beth/Rest," or Bon Iver altogether. This stuff is interesting enough to demand something more than our predetermined prejudices. They're really just lasting insecurities that we'll never be as cool as Tom Cruise in Top Gun anyway.
Bon Iver performs with Other Lives on Saturday at Edgefield. It's sold out.