Bon Iver's "Beth/Rest" and sentimentality under The Believer's scope
Photo by D.L. Anderson
The yearly tradition of The Believer putting out a music issue is upon us once again. As in years past, the McSweeney's flagship magazine of profound thought has pulled together an assortment of essays, interviews, and voices unlike any other. Where else can you read a "microinterview" with Limp Bizkit's Wes Borland alongside "A history of the quixotic and nature-defying feats of the men who soar higher than Maria Callas and Mariah Carey" in the same mag?
In the reviews section, Chicago writer Martin Seay wrestles with "much to admire and much to mistrust" about the sentimental final track on Bon Iver's most recent album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, titled "Beth/Rest." It's important to note that this ground had a critical tent pitched on it last fall already, but it's still a fun exploration into the intentions of both an artist and a music listener.
NPR's Steven Thompson said of the song, "With its electric keyboards, saxophones and epic guitar solos, the track could double as the lost love theme to a misbegotten action movie in which Morgan Fairchild seduces a suave diamond thief played by Lou Diamond Phillips." And Stereogum called it "something of a curveball."
Even Seay has his own reference to pull -- from Allmusic's characterization that it's not even as good as some song from a movie about unicorns. Here, the band America paints with a magically soft brush:
And this is where the argument gets a little tougher to take. Seay mentions that "The most prominent timbres we hear in ["Beth/Rest"]--chiming synthesizers, dueling saxophones, towering overdriven guitar solos, extremely gated drums--have been relegated among sophisticates to punch-line status roughly since Nevermind hit the charts."
What better reason to bring them back? If there's anything to be proud of about a record is that it doesn't feel any need to cater to the sophisticates who pooh pooh a Korg M1 progression in the 21st century. Innovation has always been a function of digging up the art of the past, regardless of the elitist or popular pedestal where it rested. While there are some who can't separate that keyboard sound from the pants with six pleats on each leg they used to wear three times a week in 1989, it is wholly irresponsible to assume that everything deemed out-of-bounds by a nattering bunch of critics should be important to you.
Now that we got that out of the way, on to a bit about sentimentality here:
What Vernon seems to have set out to do--throughout Bon Iver's catalog to date, and in "Beth/Rest" in particular--is make listeners' sentimentality available to them in a way that is at once heartfelt and self-conscious. He does so by presenting the song's sentimentality in brackets that function similarly to, while differing strongly from, the ironic quotation marks that decorate much of indie rock. Bon Iver's brackets serve a purpose akin to that of the transparent walls enclosing the marine otters at the zoo: they allow you to get an edifying close look, to be amused and delighted, but they also foreclose any impulse to take the critters home with you.
Indeed, this would be a great song to play on your iPhone while visiting Feisty the seal and Berlin the polar bear at their new home at the Como Zoo. But I disagree that there's any need to hold back from giving in whole-heartedly to "Beth/Rest." If anything, this departure track proved to be one of the most compelling statements of Bon Iver, Bon Iver for its resistance to fit anything expected of Justin Vernon based upon his past work.
I can go listen to Michael McDonald, Billy Ocean, Lionel Richie, and whenever '80s soft rock (borrowing Seay's term) I want, and not be disturbed by the quotations, brackets, or even the dreaded italics to add emphasis that might be associated with others' experience of many songs that found ways to be great in very specific contexts. Putting too much trust in artists who seem more earnest than these is where the real fault lies.
Judging by Richie and Kenny Rogers' recent reunion to discuss their co-writing success with another easy listening gem "Lady," there's a parallel universe on the artists' side where they'd never begrudge these songs as they go in and out of fashion. Be it a hit-making mission, or something with intentions and results far more complex, there's a whole lot of distance between how we experience a song like "Beth/Rest" and the manner in which it was created. Just as Common eventually told us to "get up on this conscious dick," it has long been expected that art can never be fully trusted to be a represent its creator -- even when it has consistently sent one message for a long time.
This will hopefully get you thinking (and arguing) about the music you have on today a little bit more, and it's why Seay's essay is worth a read. Check it out here.
The rest of The Believer's music issue is linked here.
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