For everything the human voice can do, lately artists across popular music have been looking for ways to make it do more. Auto-Tune was just the start: Whether it’s a playfully pitch-shifted Rihanna, Justin Bieber’s voice chopped and arranged into a wordless singalong, James Blake treating his own croon like sculpting clay, or Frank Ocean releasing two versions of the same song differentiated by the type of distortion on his voice, sounding like a better singer isn’t the point—sounding like a different creature is.
Perhaps the mechanization of vocals is a sign of progress in recording technology, or of artistic concerns about an ever-less-organic age. But maybe the motive is simpler: It’s the latest way to try and get an edge. The three-to-four-minute pop song is well-worn by now; messing with vocals is a way to meet Ezra Pound’s enduring directive to “make it new.”
Among the vanguard of this trend has been Bon Iver, who’s long sought to make a very old form—singer/songwriter folk music—seem new largely through voice. The 2007 indie smash For Emma, Forever Ago introduced Justin Vernon’s whimpery falsetto, which struck the ear as unfamiliar while communicating a feeling of devastation, as Vernon used lyrics selected less for meaning than for alluring consonance. He then shocked the indie world with the 2009 track “Woods,” sung entirely in what sounded like Auto-Tune, leading to an unlikely, prolific, and influential creative partnership with Kanye West. Studio effects majestically swathed Vernon and his band for 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, such a crossover hit that it won the Grammy for album of the year.