Let’s say there’s two small communities nestled on separate sides of a mist-covered mountain range. One is like one of those rustic, quasi-European villages you’d see in a 19th-century woodcarving, with long fat sausages hanging in the butcher’s window and lamplighters making their rounds at dusk; the other is a more cosmopolitan affair, with lots of neon and purring nightclubs, designer drugs and sleek cars and sexual/racial intermingling. The people of both, inured to their surroundings, nevertheless feel a lot of angst. Occasionally, villagers from either town venture to the other, dazzled by the sheer differences in lifestyles. Then they go back to their cottages in their respective hamlets and make music about bridging the surface differences by capturing something psychically elusive that links both not by their location on the same mountain, but by the fact that inhabitants of both breathe the same air and have the same deep longings that they struggle to put into words.
The Beast imagined these two little towns when we watched L.A.-based neo-soul singer Frank Ocean’s performance on SNL’s season premiere last week and puzzled/marveled over the complex, idiosyncratic things Ocean was trying to do musically while recognizing that we'd heard something like it before: in Bon Iver, the chamber-folk ensemble headed by our fellow Wisconsinite Justin Vernon.
At a very fundamental level, let’s place Ocean and Iver in the newest chapter of a group we call “The Meanderers.” “Meanderer” has a bit of a negative connotation, but it illustrates our point perfectly, meaning in verb form “to follow a winding course” and in noun form “a winding curve or bend of a river or road.” (We prefer it to “The Dilly-Dalliers.”) They include a hazily defined group of artists like Flying Lotus, Cat Power, Jim O’Rourke, Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, Richard Buckner, Animal Collective, Portishead, Erykah Badu, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, Tricky (an early mentor to Ocean), Lana Del Rey and, what the hell, let’s throw in TV on the Radio while we’re at it. Each in their own freak-flag way create atmospheric, muted cinemas of sound that slip the bonds of song structure and even genre and seem to capture the in-the-moment thought patterns and emotional digressions of the artist(s) singing it. It’s an aesthetic not just confined to music but literature and film, like the meandering but psychologically intense movies of Wim Wenders or Paul Thomas Anderson and the detective noir of Sweden or Denmark, where, not surprisingly, Bon Iver’s second album debuted at No. 1.
There’s a long history of musical Meanderers, mostly in the acoustic idiom, from the stream-of-consciousness talking blues of Furry Lewis and Charley Patton to the hermetic folk of Michael Hurley and Nick Drake. Minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich (the latter of whom Vernon has dutifully name-checked in interviews) took the looooong road not traveled in their extended works In C and Music for 18 Musicians, paving the way not just for the ambient 1970s works of Brian Eno but for nearly the entire Windham Hill catalog of the 1980s. Neo-soul pioneers like Maxwell, D’Angelo, Prince, Shuggie Otis and Maxwell (all of whom Ocean’s music has drawn comparisons to) even added meandering to their slippery and sexually pantheistic inter-genre excursions.
In terms of Vernon’s music, The Beast sees an antecedent in the first (and for a long time, only) solo album by David Crosby, 1971’s aptly titled If I Could Only Remember My Name…. Crosby, a tightly wound egotist disguised as an avowed hippie, wrote these billowy, pretentious, nearly formless songs like “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Guinnevere” and “Wooden Ships,” and his solo album continued this trend with “Song with No Name (Tree with No Leaves”), “Cowboy Movie” and “Laughing.” (The choir chorus of “Orleans” sounds like a blueprint for Vernon’s multi-tracked chamber chorales.) In our ears, this record – barely anchored by Crosby's fluttery, easily dissolved tenor that somewhat resembles Vernon’s – are like being steeped in an Aquarian nightmare, where one takes a journey that ends up where one started but everyone is too fried on STP to care. Drool running out of a junkie’s mouth was more interesting—and at least real.
Yet, appreciating that was over forty years ago and a new generation with no direct memories of the excesses of the ‘60s and ‘70s (of which Crosby was an active and willing participant) might have a different take on said excesses. So when someone like Frank Ocean hears the Eagles’ “Hotel California” he hears it with new wiring: He likes the slow, languid beat, the lyrics about the gorgeous decadence of Southern California, or, like Crosby’s album, gorgeous decadence disguised as Utopianism. Never mind that it was made by a bunch of rich post-hippie millionaires posing as denimed urban cowboys; Ocean rewires the song for his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. He throws “Bluegrass” and "Death Metal” on his own iTunes profile as a joke play on how little genre means in the Age of the Download. “Most modern music that’s worth shit isn’t any one genre. That shit got played out in the 90s,” Ocean told Black Book just after the release of his first (proper) solo album channel ORANGE. “Now everything’s affected by everything, and we’re all affected by one another.” In another interview, Ocean – whose outspokenness matches Vernon’s and is not just limited to his much-ballyhooed decision to come out as gay on Tumblr – even decried R&B as “so racial” and preferred to see himself as “a singer/songwriter.” Vernon, on the other hand, has claimed, as he did to an interviewer in 2007, “I am into more black singers than white” and named Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo, Sam Cooke and Prince as admired artists. And then there’s that baffling but thrilling collaboration with the polymath Kanye West, who used a thread of Vernon’s song “Woods” in his song “Lost in the World.”
Interestingly, West has been the lynchpin for these two artists, collaborating with both Vernon and Ocean. (He was a mentor of sorts to the latter during the final productions stages of channel ORANGE.) All three share a video director in the form of Nabil Elderkin, who did Bon Iver’s “Holocene,” West's "Mercy" and just unveiled the ambitious eight-minute video for Ocean’s “Pyramids." But it’s not Kanye where the intriguing parallels halt. Both tour with versatile mixed-race bands: Vernon’s ensemble can take on the muted guise of a soul band, and Ocean has a double-guitar backup whose soft and deliberate interplay recalls the work of Bill Frisell or Daniel Lanois. Despite being catalogued as “neo-soul,” the bass on Ocean’s songs is almost nonexistent, the percussion cinched to mere electronic blips. Despite being categorized as “neo-folk,” Vernon peppers a song like “Beth/Rest” with horns and keyboards that wouldn’t sound out of place in a 1980s R&B song; he also built most of his early tracks with Auto Tunes, which is mostly associated with Hip Hop and Dance. Ocean often writes from female as well as male perspectives; Vernon has emphasized the influence of female singer/songwriters like Rickie Lee Jones, Nina Simone and Indigo Girls. Both often sing in a squinched, whispery falsetto (Ocean sometimes sounding like Miles Davis when he used a mute on his trumpet). Both compose songs with mysterious titles: "Voodoo," "Flume," "Novocane," "Perth," "Michicant, "Monks." (We challenge you to guess who wrote which—no Googlin’!) Both released their debuts independently after stumbling into creative and personal bottlenecks. Both are 21st-century laptop composers, creating painstaking music in comparative isolation, and who even seem isolated surrounded by a whole band onstage (Vernon either sits in a chair or stands on a carpeted riser; Ocean begins his concerts sitting on a stool).
But most of all, both plumb the depths (or scale the heights?) of subdued arrangements, elusive, oblique lyrics and idiosyncratic, almost conversational song structures that don’t conform to the traditional pop frameworks—like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, they seemed composed not from pre-written lyrics but straight from the emotional forms of the music itself as it goes along (this is the trick), zigzagging through its creators mood swings, pit stops, cul de sacs and hidden quirks. (The New York Times’ Jon Pareles described Ocean’s music as “melodies that hover between speech and song, asymmetrical and syncopated.”) Music critics, of course, have played the devil’s advocate to the genuflecting over the “originality” of Vernon and Ocean’s music. Jody Rosen, in particular, seemed turned off by the floatiness of both artists. On Ocean, he wrote for Rolling Stone: “Sometimes, [he] is less a songwriter than a purveyor of formless grooves; his lyrics, which at their best whiplash from the mundane to the metaphysical, dissolve occasionally into New Agey goop." On Vernon, he somewhat infamously jibed on Slate: “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.” Rosen is only a year younger than the Beast; we get it -- we're the old wiring.
Personally, we’d pay 47% of Mitt Romney’s bank account to find out if Frank Ocean and/or Justin Vernon ever heard David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name...—and, if they did, could they remember what they thought of it.
UPDATE 9/25/12: Apparently, Vitamin Water and Fader Magazine agree with us. They just sponsored a joint concert between Frank Ocean and Bon Iver last night in New York. The pics below are from Pitchfork Media's Ebru Yilditz. Notice any further similarities?