Bon Iver’s self-titled new album debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 album charts last month, and most critics and fans are responding favorably to the record. But for all of the press the album has picked up (i.e. how do you make a follow-up to a beloved debut album, will Bon Iver succumb to a sophomore slump?), the biggest story of Bon Iver seems to be the last song.
“Beth/Rest” begins with an unmistakable late-’80s synth hook that has drawn comparisons to Bruce Hornsby. For others, it sounds like mid-’80s Chicago (especially “Hard Habit to Break”). Regardless, it’s a horribly dated sound. So dated in fact, that people either see “Beth/Rest” as a brave declaration of love for music that we’re taught not to love because of its lack of coolness, or as another example of crass hipster irony.
Bon Iver joins a select number of other albums that fit the same scenario: an album that contains a wildly divisive song that earns the band detractors from even their most dedicated fanbase. Unlike full album departures (see Neil Young’s Trans or Hole’s Celebrity Skin), these albums fit neatly in a band’s arsenal, with the glaring exception of that one song that everyone talks about. For many, that one song is an unmistakable blemish on an otherwise perfect album. For others, these songs are unfairly maligned. Regardless, these songs provide a good amount of debate in otherwise universally-lauded releases.
The Beatles – “Revolution 9” (The Beatles)
Just as “The White Album” is the go-to comparison for a wildly ambitious attempt at a band to utilize all of its strengths, damned the results, “Revolution 9” is the standard bearer of any “track they’ll be talking about” song. Yoko Ono’s avant garde leanings were all over this track, as it used remnants from “Revolution 1” and incorporated loops, overdubs, and chaotic musical arrangements.
One of the joys of listening to The Beatles is its demand on the listener. A true “White Album” listening experience means listening to the album in full. That means accepting the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”‘s and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”‘s because those tracks just make the “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps”‘ and “Blackbird”‘s all that more rewarding. But even die-hard fans may find listening to “Revolution 9” a chore as it comes so late in the album. At over eight minutes, “Revolution 9” makes you question whether the inventors of the Compact Disc came up with the “skip” concept just for this very song.
Bob Dylan – “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35” (Blonde on Blonde)
Blonde on Blonde is inarguably one of the greatest double albums ever released. It’s an album that showcases Dylan at his most fearless musically and his songwriting was just as ambitious. Yet even Dylan scholars may stop just short of calling Blonde on Blonde a perfect album because of “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35”.
Stoners may still chuckle at the chorus, but compared to the sprawling “Visions of Johanna” and epic “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Rainy Day Women” seems like a bad rom/com trailer one has to sit through before watching a film classic. The good news is that the most annoying song on the album is quickly dispatched, leaving the listener to enjoy the rest of Blonde on Blonde without any other bumps.
Lucinda Williams – “Wrap My Head Around That” (West)
While West will never be on the same level of “The White Album” or Blonde on Blonde, it showed us a familiar Lucinda Williams, singing about heartbreak, longing, and loneliness. That is until “Wrap My Head Around That”. For about 20 years, most of Williams’ songs adhered to the standard of most great country and rock songs: punchy, memorable characters and choruses, and out in less than four minutes. Then came “Wrap My Head Around That”.
At a punishing nine minutes, “Wrap My Head Around That” embraces R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe’s “stream of consciousness” songwriting approach as it marches along. As the song seems to go in circles, you hear the occasional “mmm hmmms” sung with a fuzzy soundbox-like effect. At the end, the listener is left dazed and dizzy, but for all the wrong reasons.
OutKast – “My Favorite Things” (The Love Below)
The lead-up to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had speculators assume that the Big Boi side would be filled with conventional hip-hop standards and Andre 3000’s The Love Below would supply the crazy artistic peaks that we’ve all come to expect in an OutKast album. What many critics didn’t expect was to have Big Boi supply not only speaker-ratting beats, but thoughtful ruminations about the world, and plenty of examples of otherworldly innovations on tracks like “War” and “Church”.
Of course, Andre 3000 supplied plenty of his own peaks on The Love Below, especially on the “shortlist for best song of the decade” track “Hey Ya!” and the erotic “Spread”. But Andre 3000 tended to overstretch toward the end of The Love Below. This is nowhere more apparent than his nod to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “My Favorite Things”. It’s one of the tracks most mentioned when pointing out why Speakerboxx/The Love Below deserves to be on the second-tier of OutKast albums behind Stankonia and Aquemini. Unfairly maligned? Perhaps. But “My Favorite Things” remains one of the better examples of the importance of a good editor.
Wilco – “Less Than You Think” (A Ghost Is Born)
A Ghost Is Born begins abrasively with the jarring “At Least That’s What You Said”, and while there are plenty of warm moments throughout the album, that noise-filled uneasiness is never too far from the listener’s ear, such as in the tennis-match sear of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. But even vocal defenders of Ghost may have a hard time listening to “Less Than You Think”.
Tweedy insists that “Less Than You Think” would not be included on Ghost if he didn’t think it was worthy. The track, extending to a punishing 15 minutes, was reportedly recorded to convey the experience of a debilitating effect of a migraine to a listener. Mission accomplished.