By every indication, Justin Vernon is not the same man he was 3 years ago. It has been that long since his debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was recorded all alone under the moniker of Bon Iver out in a wintry Wisconsin cabin. The story about the creation of the album was about as perfect as the album itself, bringing with it the thought that maybe if we all just retreated from civilization perhaps we too might emerge with a similar bit of brilliance. Many have surely tried since then, but I haven’t heard any incredible “cabin in the woods” stories recently, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. But Vernon has done nothing but grow since breaking free of that self-imposed cocoon, moving forwards with a number of extra projects that includes the slow R&B collective Gayngs and the uber-experimental Volcano Choir. That’s not even making mention of his guest work on the latest Kanye West album along with the slight sonic leap forwards that was Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” EP. While supporting that first Bon Iver record on tour, Vernon recruited an actual band to play with, and they’ve been by his side ever since, working to carefully enhance the sparse and singular acoustic guitar arrangements. He very well could have raced back to that Wisconsin cabin to record the second Bon Iver full length, but given all that’s happened to him, one gets the impression that he’s moved so far beyond that classic tale both mentally and sonically that there would be no point looking back. So instead Vernon built a recording studio out of an old veterinary clinic in Wisconsin, where he and the rest of the band crafted the new album in bits and pieces during their free time over these last 3 years. This record is self-titled, and that’s most likely because it marks a second rebirth for Vernon, signalling that Bon Iver is no longer just a singular man with a guitar but instead a full-fledged band with a vast array of tools at their disposal.
A big part of what made “For Emma, Forever Ago” so charming was the simplicity of it. The thought that a voice and an acoustic guitar were just about all the tools you needed to craft amazing songs meant that production values, studio magic and a full band were unnecessary extravagances when push came to shove. In certain cases though, such as with tUnE-yArDs, stepping up from crappy bedroom laptop recording to legitimate studio and backing band has proven not only necessary, but essential towards unleashing the full potential of an artist. Those concerned that Vernon’s upward movement towards bigger and better has spoiled his ability to write and compose smart music needn’t have worried after all, for “Bon Iver” seems to fully recognize all of the best things about that last album and worked simply to expound upon them in new and interesting ways. The anchor, as it has always been, is Vernon’s voice. That stark falsetto is truly unique in today’s musical landscape, and he once again makes the most out of it. Doubled and tripled over harmonies, Auto-Tune and a host of other effects make the singing a weapon of its own, often rising above the main course of melody to create added depth and beauty. He never quite goes to the length of the a capella acrobatics that was “Woods” off the “Blood Bank” EP, but he doesn’t need to here, particularly because there’s so much else for your ears to pick up on. The subtle uses of horns, orchestral sections and saxophones mix with digital and electro effects to make a mix that’s purposely muddy and understated. There are no sweepingly epic or overtly dramatic moments on the album, even if there are songs that build to noisy and satisfying crescendos. Intimacy is maintained primarily though Vernon’s words and his delivery of them, but for the most part there’s a natural calm that flows through the entire record from an instrumental perspective, to the point where it’s not too difficult to catch a nap during a few songs should the conditions be right. That’s not to say this album is boring, just that like any good lullaby, when you mix quiet and beautiful sometimes you’ll just close your eyes for a minute and wake up hours later.
Starting with a few seconds of pure silence, “Bon Iver”‘s opening track “Perth” works the term “slow burn” in the best way possible. The carefully picked and slightly fuzzy electric guitar initially maps out the melody, and shortly thereafter a very martial drum line kicks in to help propel that even more. After running through a couple of verses with not much of a legitimate chorus, nearly the entire final half of the song is pure instrumental build to an explosion. Chords are hit, the drums get louder, a horn section comes into play, and the best “hook” we can ask for is based purely on the guitar notes and nothing else. This is an introduction to the evolution of Bon Iver, and it’s heartening to see the band loosed from the chains of a more conventional song structure. Soft rock and a more nature-infused alt-country intersect on “Minnesota, WI”. The first half of the song moves from spacey guitar and deep drums into an almost slowed down reggae groove where flutes and saxophones all gently work with one another next to Vernon breaking out his lowest register R&B vocal that comes across as more Tunde Adebimpe than it does Bon Iver. But there’s a smooth development that enters with a subtle but fast moving acoustic guitar that’s about the auditory equivalent of a babbling forest brook. Suddenly all the other instruments begin to fade away, and in their place comes a banjo and a slide guitar. There’s also a heavy synth that pulsates through the main melody as it grinds towards a conclusion in which all the sounds collide in a melting pot that only works because of its modesty and restraint. Not everything is pure innovation or extensive with what it contains. “Holocene” is much more a vocal showcase than anything else, though the acoustic guitar and xylophone are nearly as warm and welcoming. Still, the light touch of a bicycle bell on “Michicant” or the bird chirping on “Hinnom, TX” make those songs just a touch more charming past what they’re already doing.
If there’s a point of contention on this self-titled album though, it’s going to be with closing track “Beth/Rest”. Whereas everything leading up to that point had only hinted towards something more 80s soft rock/adult contemporary, Bon Iver goes for the jugular in the end with something that would register as pure homage were it also not infused with a couple of small modern-day flourishes. Still, trying not to think about Bruce Hornsby and his kinfolk whilst listening to the song is tough, unless you’re young enough to have never been exposed to such cheese. This fucking with the idea of what’s “cool” by creating a song that is patently uncool seems to have carried over with a number of artists this year. Destroyer’s “Kaputt” worked on a lot of the same principles and managed to succeed in spite of itself. A worse example would be Heidecker & Wood’s debut album, which left you wondering if there was a joke or extreme sincerity behind it. For Bon Iver, the thinking appears to be one of acceptance. What’s cool is relative, and while we all make mistakes from time to time, we shouldn’t have to defend things or music that we truly love no matter how bad it might be to others. Even then, were we to search hard enough, perhaps we can find something great about an otherwise terrible thing or song. For me, “Beth/Rest” is worthwhile and a solid album closer less because it’s a decent song and more because of what it represents and tries to do. Certainly it will have its critics, but where some will see fault others will see perfection. 80s adult conteporary may be a crap genre, but at least Bon Iver has taken the risk and wound up making that crap sound almost listenable.
To say that expectations were high for the second Bon Iver album would be an understatement. “For Emma, Forever Ago” touched so many people who identified with its sparse and somber message. It is a record about heartbreak and attempting to move past it. As a contrast, “Bon Iver” isn’t about a woman but instead more about a place or places. You look at the song titles, from “Minnesota, WI” to “Wash.” to “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH”, and whether they’re real or not, they all dictate a location. There’s controversy about whether or not this new album is titled “Bon Iver” or if it’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”, as if dictating that the band were a city and state unto themselves. Whatever the reality might be, this is an album that is searching for a home. We all get a little lost sometimes and become unsure of where to go or who to turn to. Consider this your travelling companion as you seek that refuge from whatever it is that is causing you distress. It is your port in a storm, your warm blanket when you are cold, or your moment of clarity amidst a sea of confusion. These are incredible songs composed with the utmost care and skill so as to hold consistent and thematically strong. If JUstin Vernon had just turned in another record filled with acoustic guitar ballads it would likely be very nice, but ultimately a little disappointing. Consistent development of your own sound is important, and Bon Iver have grown in big ways here. The influence of Vernon’s other projects is stamped on this album, but never to the point of open distraction or in such a way where we’d consider it anything else than something Bon Iver would do. The quietly graceful tone and how most of the songs blend into one another also helps to see this as a singular piece rather than a collection of individual songs. Standout first single “Calgary” may give you a good idea of how this record sounds, but to fully understand it requires at least one time through without any breaks or pauses or skipping. Allow yourself to be enveloped in the natural serenity it offers. Try to forget what you know, or think you know about this band and the sort of music they make, just to see if it resonates with you. If it does, maybe you can build a little home for it inside your heart.