I’ve recently been consecutively running into profiles of male solo singer songwriters. First was the story on Andrew Bird in the NYT magazine, then Bonnie Prince Billy in New Yorker and npr, then Bon Iver also in New Yorker. I’ve been listening to these artists the last few months, especially Bon Iver who has the ability to bring out the soul wrenching heaviness in all of us.
I found the stories to be gluttonous in its glorification of the outsider reclusive socially inept artist and found the romanticizing of their process a bit overbearing. But I did finish reading each story and am glad I know that much more about their personal lives, habits, social misgivings, and of course, their music.
My least favorite of the three is Andrew Bird, whose whistle & violin compositions are a bit too commercial pop, a bit too calculated and over-composed. I am by far the least experienced and ignorant when it comes to dissecting, analyzing and criticizing music but I think I can justifiably comment that his music is a bit cheesy. I do appreciate his earnestness and humble modesty in carefully composing each song and trying not too sound too rehearsed but I think this only backfires a bit and results in his songs sounding a bit uptight, stifled and tense. I find his best songs are the ones that really emphasize his background in classical training with his Jeff Buckley-esque voice trailing behind and in between such as the song “Weather Systems”. I’ll have to give it a few more listens to appreciate the folkish aspect in his music.
I can’t help think of Devendra Banhart when I listen to Bonnie Prince Billy, whose mystic abilities to break boundaries and genres is most impressive. He sights R.Kelly as a huge influence which boggles my mind and don’t see the relation at all, and find hysterical in his participation in Kanye West’s music video with comedian Zach Galifianakis. I don’t know how seriously I can take this guy and if all they say in the article is true, I think it’s really all a big performance where he can make fun, mock, humor himself, or be secretive, mystical, fairy like at his will and choosing. His music also involves silly lyrics and half serious melodies, sung with a carelessness that emphasizes a wholesome sometimes frilly voice. I think more interesting than his music is the man himself who carries different names and acts in indie films and silly music videos. From the way he participates in such pop culture events he would seem more comedian then freak folk connoisseur, but I guess that is the beauty behind Will Oldham, there is no categorizing him.
My favorite of these three is Bon Iver, whose For Emma album I’ve been listening to non stop for a few days now. His voice is raw and genuine, it resonates deeply both high and low, and the deceiving simplicity of the melody and riffs are delicate compliments to a voice that ranges from angelic falsetto to grounded emphatic willingness. The fact that he spent months in a cabin as a recluse recording these songs shortly after a break up romanticizes the album and the ladies sympathize with whatever pain he may be still feeling through his songs. What strikes me the most about his songs are the lyrics. I am not one to ever ever listen to lyrics and the article rings true when they say the lyrics are more for sound than meaning. They hardly make sense and seems more automatic stream of consciousness writing rather than a dedication to love and pain. Put these three elements together, lyrics, voice and melody and you have are left with a lyrical, tear enducing goosebumping of a ride.