Saturday, April 5, 2014

Song #503 of 9999 - Perth by Bon Iver

Song #503 of 9999

Title: Perth
Artist: Bon Iver
Year: 2011
Album: Bon Iver, Bon Iver

You can tell a lot about a band from its sophomore effort. I felt okay jumping on the modern folk bandwagon in 2009 or so, picking up records from Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons. And when late 2011 rolled around, I didn't hesitate to purchase their latest releases. What I experienced from each band was something very different. Mumford and Sons continued to tread in the same waters to a disappointing degree while Bon Iver found something new and creative while still retaining their signature sound. In fact, you may find Bon Iver, Bon Iver to be an improvement on For Emma, Forever Ago if you make the investment.

"Perth" is the first track from Bon Iver, Bon Iver and, while not a single, it epitomizes the album and the band for me. Justin Vernon's falsetto vocal is enveloped by a halo of harmony that follows just behind in terms of pitch and rhythm. It's at once both robotic and organic.

But what I really enjoy about "Perth" is its exemplary use of a musical motive. In the simplest of terms, a motive is a short, melodic/rhythmic idea that is repeated throughout a piece and serves as a unifying element. (Think of the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the quintessential example.) In "Perth," this motive (shown in brackets below) is first heard in the guitar part as a sequence of constantly rising segments which oscillate between dissonant-consonant and consonant-dissonant.

What I really like about this motive is that it provides this rhythmic flourish directly on the beat, almost like a Baroque ornament. This is really unusual for pop music and Bon Iver takes advantage of its power and fluidity. The figure returns most prominently in the chorus (at 1:28) but even before that moment, it can be heard in the snare drum that supports the otherwise naked first verse. When the song gets heavy and syncopated at 2:33, the motive is relegated to a supporting role in the responding drumbeat (at 2:40). But it emerges in full force at 3:48 before eventually giving way to Track 2 ("Minnesota, WI"). It's an auspicious opening to a fulfilling record, almost symphonic in nature.

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