It seems like everyone’s going crazy about the current trend in Hip Hop for AutoTuning one’s voice, which culminated in one of 2008’s bleakest, most emotionally raw albums, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, which papered over Yeezy’s vocal inadequacies with almost continual use of AutoTune, and, in so doing, unearthed the most heartbroken corners of his mind. On a slightly related plane, one of the highlights of Bon Iver’s 2007/8 album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the track The Wolves (Acts I & II), which again presented the singer as an emotionally scarred recluse, hiding behind elusive metaphor to combat the pain and anguish of heartbreak. And, like with Mr. West, one of the most striking aspects of the song is it’s use of AutoTune to fiddle around with Justin Vernon’s voice, albeit in rather more of a subtle manner. Listen to it carefully and, at around 2:52, there it is, making him seem detached and inhuman to dazzling effect. It’s dead clever.
So clever, in fact, that Vernon has taken the trick to its logical conclusion in the new song, Woods, featured on his Blood Bank EP, out this week, and also featured in the video above. Here, unaccompanied by any instruments, Vernon’s vocals are stacked through a vocoder (which, I accept, is different from AutoTune), in a manner not really heard since Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. The effect, too, is similar: he sounds fragile and scarred, wishing to hide behind electronics not to mask any vocal inadequacies, but to depict a precarious and uncertain state of mind. Over the top of the vocodered refrain, Vernon howls like a wolf, presenting another level of anguish and passion. The results are dazzling, but only in small doses. When the song is over, you too feel drained and spent, and one has to hope that Bon Iver leaves his experiment at just that. It’s a wonderful, haunting song, but I certainly couldn’t bear a whole album of it.