Even among admirers of the most recent Bon Iver album, of whom there are a great and vocal many, there is some degree of discomfort regarding the final track. A soaring, stately, unapologetically anthemic power ballad hung on a warm keyboard melody, “Beth/Rest” offers up its charms more readily than anything else on the record. The song’s fans praise its easygoing guilelessness; its detractors assail it along the lines sketched by Allmusic’s Tim Sendra, who writes that it “sounds like the theme song to a horrible ’80s movie about unicorns (only not that good).”
The adjective most often invoked in relation to “Beth/Rest”—even by apologists, even on occasion by Bon Iver auteur Justin Vernon himself—is cheesy. Cheese, in the present context, can be taken as American English for kitsch, or the use of sentimental expressions in outmoded idioms, and with respect to “Beth/Rest” the term is not misapplied. The most prominent timbres we hear in the song—chiming synthesizers, dueling saxophones, towering overdriven guitar solos, extremely gated drums—have been relegated among sophisticates to punch-line status roughly since Nevermind hit the charts. Lyrically, “Beth/Rest” seems to be an openhearted declaration to a beloved, its reassurance and apparent sincerity flying in tight formation with sentimentality as it is commonly understood.
Vernon would not dispute this characterization. In 2009, a little more than two years before the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, he told Pitchfork that “the concept of Bon Iver has been about our place in the world and our sentimentality”—suggesting that listeners are indeed hearing what Vernon wants them to hear. But sentimental and about sentimentality don’t mean the same thing. Sentimentality has a bad name for a good reason: in the arts, it operates by borrowing our emotions and selling them back to us, reassuring us that our feelings and beliefs are legitimate simply by reminding us that we have them. It tends to plaster over distinctions and differences, to encourage groupthink, and as such is always among the least dusty implements in the demagogue’s toolbox. And yet the capacity to experience genuine sentiment—and to communicate it sincerely to others—is not only a basic human impulse but also a necessary precondition of democracy. So this stuff gets kind of complicated.
What Vernon seems to have set out to do—throughout Bon Iver’s catalog to date, and in “Beth/Rest” in particular—is make listeners’ sentimentality available to them in a way that is at once heartfelt and self-conscious. He does so by presenting the song’s sentimentality in brackets that function similarly to, while differing strongly from, the ironic quotation marks that decorate much of indie rock. Bon Iver’s brackets serve a purpose akin to that of the transparent walls enclosing the marine otters at the zoo: they allow you to get an edifying close look, to be amused and delighted, but they also foreclose any impulse to take the critters home with you.
To become politically operative, sentimental art has to blur the distinction between what it says and how it says it, to the advantage of the former. “Beth/Rest” does approximately the opposite. Though it employs the reassuring rhetoric of Bic-in-the-air pop anthems (“I ain’t living in the dark no more. / It’s not a promise, I’m just gonna call it”), it never discloses enough to permit any clear narrative or argument to take shape. Furthermore, Vernon’s language hints strongly that sense is subordinate to sound (“Well, I know that you’d offer, / would reveal it, though it’s soft and flat, / won’t repeat it, cull and coffer’s that / for the soffit, hang this homeward”). Many pop lyrics are arbitrary or vacuous, but they’re generally also unobtrusive; Bon Iver broadcasts in a code that’s insistent but that contains way more noise than signal.
Thus we’re left with the feeling that “Beth/Rest” has something to say, though we’re puzzled as to exactly what. With no explanation forthcoming in the lyrics, we turn to the music, which is intelligible almost to a fault, dense with familiar points of reference. Most listeners, like Sendra, are reminded of 1980s soft-rock: they hear snatches of Journey, Toto, OMD, Kenny G, and Phil Collins; those of Vernon’s approximate age are apt to recall, with varying degrees of irritation and nostalgia, similar sounds issuing from the stereos of their baby-boomer parents. But Vernon also introduces elements that resist a simple reading of “Beth/Rest” as a soft-rock pastiche: specifically audible Auto-Tune on his vocals and copious pedal-steel guitar, respectively idiomatic of contemporary major-label R&B and country music of just about any era. The common denominator of all these timbres, then, is their association not with a particular decade but with artists and genres that make no bones about their appeals to sentimentality, that seek to engage the largest audience within earshot—that are “pop” in the most literal sense.
In this aspiration there is clearly much to admire and much to mistrust. “Beth/Rest” probably shouldn’t be taken as a defense of sentimentality, exactly, since sentimentality is in no particular need of defenders—one can, if one is so disposed, go broke in a hurry placing bets against it. Instead it’s best regarded as an attempt to encourage the denizens of Vernon’s own cultural sphere to engage with sentimentality in a more nuanced way, to develop strategies for accessing it that will leave them both implicated and energized. Through the years, indie rock has been richly gifted with artists adept at drawing lines in the sand. Justin Vernon—who was, we’ll recall, not only a high-school-band dork but also the captain of his football team, who broke into the spotlight with an album recorded alone in the woods and now tours the world with a nine-piece band—seems to harbor altogether different ambitions.
Release date of Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver: June 21, 2011; Lyrical excerpts from “Beth/Rest”: “Aren’t we married?!”; “This is axiom”; “From the daily press, the deepest nest, in keeper’s keep”; Synthesizer used on “Beth/Rest”: Korg M1; Production dates of Korg M1: 1988–1994; Partial list of artists covered by Bon Iver: John Prine, Tom Petty, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, the Outfield; Year of Justin Vernon’s birth: 1981; Billboard Hot 100 number one hit the week of Justin Vernon’s birth: “Kiss on My List” by Daryl Hall and John Oates; Number of times the phrase hypnagogic pop appears in this review: zero