When NPR broadcasted a Bon Iver concert live from Washington, D.C.’s own 9:30 Club last summer, I was listening. I was lying in a dorm room in Istanbul at four in the morning, headphones in, when Justin Vernon and crew began playing. I had plans to listen to a few songs and fall asleep sometime early during the broadcast.
That didn’t happen. The sun had risen in Turkey by the time the show ended, and fresh from hearing of the most riveting shows of my life, I was having one of those “Isn’t the Internet amazing?” moments grandparents are so wont to have. I knew Bon Iver, Bon Iver would sound different live, but I didn’t expect it to sound that powerful. When NPR posted a link to download the show the morning after, I couldn’t believe my luck.
You see, I love Bon Iver (let my Last.fm account bear witness) and I appreciate the way Vernon reworks his pieces so as to provide enjoyable, challenging live compositions distinct from their original bases. But this latest iTunes Session EP, while maintaining the objective strength of Bon Iver’s contents, has proven remarkably unlovable.
Maybe in a universe in which that free NPR recording didn’t exist, this wouldn’t be the case. Maybe then, these seven renditions — six from Bon Iver, one a cover of Björk’s “Who Is It?” — would bear novelty worth their sticker price, or worth more serious consideration. Perhaps, even, if it weren’t for an album cover (let’s reserve album “art”) so offensively lazy in design, this album would be more enjoyable.
But likely not. Bon Iver, Bon Iver received such unheralded critical praise last year that there’s no need to rehash how great songs like “Holocene” and “Beth/Rest” are. Yet, this iTunes EP finds the band in an uncomfortably indecisive space between studio sterility and the rawness of a live stage.
For instance, there’s such an audible disagreement between the growls of Vernon and the instrumentation on opener “Beth/Rest,” it’s jolting; though Vernon is cutting loose with vocal grit not found on the LP, he seems almost unsure in such a clean environment (In fairness, the band has at least chosen to present something different, with splashes of booming percussion not found on its softer, lusher studio counterpart.). That novelty doesn’t carry over into much of the album, though. “Holocene,” for all of the delicately layered intricacies therein, comes off inexplicably flat, stale even. Likewise, the first three minutes of “Michicant” are pure sonic counterfeits.
Yet, there is some value here. The combination of “Hinnom, TX” to “Wash.” — a defining combo in the album and Bon Iver’s live show — still sounds great. The tremendous sense of spatial tension during the live call and response portion of “Hinnom, TX” is preserved, poignant strings and belted calls “All this time/ With your heart in mine” and all. “Wash.” then proceeds to provide some of the most harmoniously spontaneous moments on the EP.
Still, the claustrophobic sense of restraint on the album can be overwhelming. The strong current of conservatism and general carbon copy nature of many of the tracks from Bon Iver, Bon Iver makes for an experience that is largely underwhelming. If you’re a Bon Iver fan, you’ve already heard most everything here: if not on the album, than in a better form during a live performance.
Sure, nobody is peddling this iTunes Session as a “live” album. But compelling, rewarding risks have come to be expected from non-studio Bon Iver performances. There are so few risks taken on this album, it’s disappointing to see it be peddled at all. If you want the utility out of this one, buy “Who Is It?” by itself — you at least can’t get it and its Reggie Pace-beatboxed glory in convenient mp3 form elsewhere. Otherwise, maybe go see them live, keep listening to their studio albums in the meantime, and download that NPR recording. I hesitate to label it as a “cash grab,” but plainly, this release is a completely unneeded supplement.