The Music Club

Best music 2011: Bon Iver, Florence Welch, Beyoncé.

Is the worst poet in the history of pop music the guy from Bon Iver?

Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon
Bon Iver singer Justin Vernon

Photo by Simon Appelblad

Jonah, Ann, Nitsuh, Carl,

I’d planned to spend some time this entry taking a whack at Bon Iver, but Carl has done the dirty work for me. I’ll simply second what Carl said: Justin Vernon can obviously make pretty sounds, but his marble-mouthed singing, and the drooping-wet-sock formlessness of his songs, are maddening. As for the lyrics, they’re gibberish:

Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright
above my brother, I and tangled spines
we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
now to know it in my memory:

… and at once I knew I was not magnificent
high above the highway aisle
(jagged vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles

When I hear that song—and I do, most mornings, at my local espresso joint—I wonder: Is Vernon the worst poetaster in the history of popular music? Is he simply incapable of writing a lyric that makes sense—that tells a story, conveys a recognizable human emotion, in English or Elvish or any other language?

Maybe, but you have to hand it to the guy: He’s gobbeldygooked his way to glory. I don’t understand, though, how critics can give Vernon a pass—can fail to demand a semblance of meaning from songs delivered with such shuddering self-importance. Not everyone can be Jay-Z or Rhymin’ Simon. But at a certain point we need to stick up for the Five Ws, or we may as well curl up with a Windham Hill box set and call it a day. I get why Pitchfork would reward this jivecomprehensible lyrics: so bourgeois—but I hope the Grammy voters don’t give make the same mistake.

Actually, I’m pretty sure Adele will run the table at the Grammys. Ann makes a good case for Adele’s virtues, musical and otherwise, but I think 21 hews to retro-soul boilerplate more than Ann admits; I found it a predictable exercise in style. When it comes to leather-lunged young Englishwomen, I’m partial to Florence Welch, whose lashing rock-gospel anthems feel fresher, grander, more goofily unhinged than Adele’s. Welch has some Bono in her: the shameless ambition to tackle the big stuff—sex and death, God and the devil—and tunes that can turn the ridiculous into the sublime. Listen to “Leave My Body,” where she roars out a vision of transcendence through physical and spiritual surrender: “I’m gonna leave my body/ (Moving up to higher ground)/ I’m gonna lose my mind.” Welch also had the year’s best dress.

While we’re on the subject of lionesses: a quick word about Beyoncé’s 4, which seems to me an exception to Carl’s complaints about chart-pop. (“Current pop … seems to ramble sloppily, all text-message chatty—a side effect of persona dominating nearly every other tool in the box.”) 4 is a meticulously made, musically idiosyncratic album about, of all things, conjugal contentment. There’s no mistaking the force and originality of Beyoncé’s music. (The M.I.A.-manqué “Run the World (Girls)” aside, 4 doesn’t sound like anything else out there. No 4/4 Eurothump here!) But her politics are often overlooked.

Beyoncé tosses out so many messages, it can be hard to get a grip on her meaning: In “Countdown” she’s simultaneously Roberta Flack (“Oh, killing me softly”), Betty Draper (“All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinnertime”), and Kali, Giver and Destroyer of Life. But for a decade and a half, Beyoncé has represented African-American women’s anger and power like no one else in popular culture. And today she’s one half of a historically unprecedented showbiz partnership—a demonstrably egalitarian black royal couple rivaled only by the duo in the White House. There’s a lot more to Beyoncé’s swagged-out happy-marriage anthems than first meets the ear.

There’s so much more I’d hoped to get to: the Pistol Annies, whose album sounds better to me every day, and a few words in praise of old fogies (the Beastie Boys) and older fogies (Nick Lowe and Paul Simon). I also wanted to float a Grand Unified Theory of Swagger-Jagger, in partial answer to Ann’s plaintive whither rawk? query. But the day grows short, and 2012 is revving up. We’ve already got a new Gaga single to reckon with. So I’ll stop here and pass the baton to Jonah.

See you here next year. Or at the Van Halen reunion show. Whichever comes first.