Reams and reams of paragraphs, enough (and steeped in enough mythology) to ink dozens of dead sea scrolls, have been devoted to Bon Iver’s 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, and not without reason; indie lovers and avid Pitchfork readers seem to flock to rootsy acoustic-slinging troubadours with gusto, special hipster points granted for being lo-fi. It doesn’t get much more lo-fi than a heart-broke woodsman holing up for the winter in a Wisconsin cabin and writing and recording his debut LP, but that’s the oft-documented legend of Justin Vernon (i.e. the frontman of Bon Iver or the real-life alias of Bon Iver, depending on who you’re reading today). The intervening years have proven Vernon to be a bit restless in his creative experimentation, ending his Blood Bank EP with an acapella, multi-tracked and Auto-tuned folk song, collaborating on mildly prominent electronic-based releases, and, perhaps most prolifically, famously being drafted by Kanye West to contribute to the Best Album of 2010 (science backs this mildly hyperbolic claim up, so no worries). In the months since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, our principal moment of breaking out into a Bon Iver song was that beautiful, iconic, ominous “Monster” intro: “I shoot the lights out/ hide ’till it’s bright out…”
Which leads one to believe, then, that Vernon has abandoned his singer-songwriter roots in favor of treading more popular, or at least more experimental waters; but if the Bon Iver ouvre proper tells us anything, it’s that Mr. Vernon is more than willing – eager, it seems – to throw us a curveball every now and again. Case in point: Bon Iver’s latest, entitled simply Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
Now, anyone who actually gave a good and hearty listen to For Emma knows that Bon Iver is far from your run-of-the-mill folksy troubadour. His songs sound intimate, but they’re not hushed in that Iron & Wine, “I’m whispering this song directly into your ear canal” style; he’s a versatile vocalist, prone to extreme harmonies (multi-tracked all to hell, but still gorgeous) and bursts of carnal, forceful falsetto. And if For Emma took on all strummers in a work of bar-setting glory, Bon Iver, Bon Iver (subsequently shortened to a mere one Bon Iver for the purposes of this review) expands the sonic palette while maintaining the earmarks of an artist’s signature style. On paper, this is the ideal blueprint for a sophomore outing; in reality, this is simply an ideal sophomore album.
Opener “Perth” peals forth with a distorted, echoing guitar line so blindingly simple it feels lived-in, a few seconds of music that you feel that you’ve known for decades; it’s lovely, but most importantly, a game-changer of sorts: nothing this fiercely electrified came out of the stubbornly acoustic For Emma, and Vernon’s falsetto-ed central lyrical conceit, a repeated, multitracked “still alive who you love” is lent all the aching credence in the world simply by virtue of being pinned to a guitar track that sounds like it could have been written by The Edge.
To pare that down to a soundbite: Bon Iver’s new album is deeply, deeply affecting, even as it takes enough sonic gambles to risk derailing a highly-anticipated sophomore set. It’s not wildly experimental, not when there are artists who relish strange curveballs and who respect dissonant noise as a legitimate form of artistic expression, but while the lo-fi hallmarks of a Bon Iver album remain intact, the flourishes have changed. Electric guitars are central to this record, played not as propulsive rock instruments or excuses for excessive and show-offy noodling, but as facilitators of texture, lending a dreamy, 4am feel to the record; Vernon and company remain lo-fi, but not raw, as this is an impeccably orchestrated album, highly musical and astonishingly vivid; also, terrifically subtle, wickedly textured percussion pops up throughout, like the persistent toms that snatch the keys to lead single “Calgary” about halfway through and drive it home.
But, perhaps more importantly, there’s something imperceptible about this record that grips the heart. Bon Iver seem to be dead-set on making every tiny musical phrase count, and they pull it off terrifically: the aforementioned guitar that opens “Perth” is something special, the pedal steel that floats in and out of “Towers”, the swelling horns of “Minnesota, WI”, and, good God, the moment that album closer “Beth/Rest” floats in and you realize Bon Iver has spanked you with a genuine MOR-lite early-’90s supermarket-aisle throwback ballad, complete with resplendent synthesized piano motif and heavy-cheese Brian May guitars… these are all the earmarks of a meticulously crafted album, made to engender more than admiration. These songs were put on this earth to spark emotions, to elicit feeling, and they succeed.
Now, make no mistake: in the annals of neo-folkie weepers, Bon Iver isn’t one to telegraph his feelings as straightforwardly as, say, a Damien Rice. The heartbreak exists, sure, but lyrics like “build your tether rain-out from your fragments/ break the sailor’s table on your sacrum” are admittedly pretentious, and honestly, the words don’t get much more coherent or penetrable from there; but when this level of feeling can be wrung from such heady poetry, does it truly matter? Vernon’s voice is a piercing, heartrending instrument, rich in range, capable of much – given Vernon’s hometown of Minneapolis and his propensity for swinging from a swooning falsetto to a deeply satisfying baritone and back again (coupled with his newfound love for imbuing his brand of folk with hints of soul), could he perhaps have taken a few musical cues from fellow restless artiste Prince? – his tenacity at bogging down his central conceits with collegiate lit-course vocab aside, there’s no doubt that there’s a current of longing and depth to the songs the way Vernon sings them.
Such a richly musical, instant-vintage record as this should be heralded; and, God willing, the internet will once again find itself atwitter over Bon Iver. This is an instant classic, the kind of thing that manifests itself immediately, plants itself stubbornly in your heart, and inspires nostalgia on listen two. By expanding his limitations, Justin Vernon has once again reinvented the wheel while remaining true to something very particular: with For Emma, Forever Ago, he was a tried-and-true folkie with a fragile falsetto and an x-factor. With Bon Iver, Bon Iver, he’s expanded his repertoire, and created something marvelous while never really straying from what makes this particular project so special. “Beth/Rest” is going back on repeat now; the ears of a reviewer can now relax, and make way for the loving ear of a fan.
If there’s any justice, this album will cement that word, “fan”, into the vocabulary of Bon Iver appreciators who were previously mere “listeners”.