Bon Iver on 'SNL': Indie-pop at its most easy-listening
The hushed, don't-speak-or-you'll-miss-it synth-adorned folk of Bon Iver was a surprise top nominee for Feb. 12's Grammy Awards. However, the band was no doubt more at home last night on "Saturday Night Live," which has opened 2012 with a string of adventurous musical bookings. Following the husky, torch-signer camp of Lana Del Rey and preceeding the novelty pop of Karmin next week, the Justin Venon-led Bon Iver performed a pair of songs that slowed the show to lullaby pace.
The campfire-friendly reclusive pop of "Holocene" is an unlikely Grammy nominee for record and song of the year. Rare do Grammy voters opt for subtle, and Bon Iver's "Holocene" stands out amid the heady drama of Kanye West and the knockout vocals of Adele for simply being so easily ignorable.
"Holocene" is all mysterious imagery and lightly plucked hypnotic guitars, and the song was fleshed out on "Saturday Night Live" with easy-listening brass and wind chimes. Paired with Vernon's falsetto, which has always been more an instrument than a means for lyrical articulation, and the mini-orchestra placed a premium on tranquility.
"Holocene" was a much better offering for network television than the second song, "Beth/Rest." While Vernon's lyrics drift toward the abstract, the song showcased Bon Iver's puzzling affection for '80s cheeseball balladry, and it came off even more hokey live than it does on record. Musically, it sounded like a deconstructed version of Don Henley's "End of the Innocence," a retro, synth-pop exercise rather than a song.
After the 2008 release of debut “For Emma, Forever Ago," Vernon's Bon Iver project became an instant indie rock myth. The story of the solitary Vernon recording the album in the Wisconsin woods with just a guitar and laptop captured the musician as a tech-savy hermit and caught the attention of everyone from critics to West, who invited Vernon to participate in the recording sessions for his 2010 album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
Follow-up "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" has become a modest hit. It's sold more than 350,000 copies in the U.S., according to Niesen SoundScan, and earned the act a best new artist nomination at this year's Grammy Awards. Yet there's a good chance the more mainstream Grammy audience won't even get to know Bon Iver.
Late last week, Billboard.com spoke with Vernon at a promotional appearance in New York, and the artist told the site that he had thus far turned down advances from the producers of the Grammy Awards, which will air next Sunday on CBS, as the act isn't willing to take part in a high-concept Grammy spectacle. "We wanted to play our music, but were told that we couldn't play," Vernon told BIllboard. "We had to do a collaboration with someone else."
The Grammys typically put a premium on multi-artist pairings, placing the likes of Mumford & Sons with Bob Dylan or Taylor Swift with Stevie Nicks. More rare is it that an artist is allowed to perform its own song in its entirety, as last year's album of the year winners Arcade Fire were allowed to do.
Regardless of the Grammy outcome, here's a video of the band performing "Holocene" on "Saturday Night Live":
And here's Bon Iver performing "Beth/Rest," but you have been warned:
-- Todd Martens
Image: Screenshot of Bon Iver's performance on "Saturday Night Live." Credit: NBC / "Saturday Night Live."