Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Bon Iver – Bon Iver
The curious case of Justin Vernon: a folkie with mono holes himself up in a log cabin, cuts a record to cure what ails him, releases it to popular and critical acclaim and eventually finds himself featuring on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably the musical event of 2010. For a musical project that has its roots in isolation, Bon Iver has certainly found an audience that Vernon could never have anticipated. But with great notoriety comes great opportunities, including the opportunity to collaborate with different people and experiment with different sounds. So while Vernon still writes music that has the intimacy of a singer/songwriter, Bon Iver’s eponymous second album is much more expansive than For Emma, Forever Ago, with unexpected musical twists around every turn.
He hinted at his restlessness with his side project, Volcano Choir, and the Auto-Tune he employed on the Blood Bank EP, but he blows the door wide open here. Humming synths, sighing steel guitar, washes of electric guitar, backing vocalists, skittering drumbeats and even some swooning sax all make their appearance, sometimes even within one song. In fact, without Vernon’s singing, it would be easy to mistake Bon Iver as the work of a different artist. But with this album, that’s just it: Vernon spends a lot of time messing around with the arrangements and production, but he downplays what you’d expect from a Bon Iver record, namely his voice. This isn’t to say Vernon sings less than on his debut, but the emphasis is placed elsewhere. With all the heavy collaboration and instrumentation, the album’s certainly busier than his debut, but this isn’t a dense record. Instead, it ebbs and flows, each soulful guitar or keyboard phrase gently washing over the listener, song after song, even on the album’s most kinetic moment, “Towers.” The same can be said of Vernon’s voice. Rather than the emotional yelps of songs like “Skinny Love,” he simply uses his gorgeous voice as another instrument in the mix, occasionally modifying and multi-tracking it for extra effect.
This might be a deal-breaker for some fans of For Emma, but Bon Iver has its own distinctive charms. “Holocene” and “Calgary” are both lovely, slow-building numbers that show the best Vernon’s new sound has to offer; “Michicant” and “Wash.” recall the austerity of his debut, and the surprising closer “Beth/Rest” embraces Phil Collins-esque adult contemporary without a trace of hipster irony. That being said, the dreamy, aquatic flow of Bon Iver sometimes is a bit too transient, with many songs not establishing enough of a tone or identity to keep the record from sometimes feeling like one long, ever-changing song. This extends to his words as well. Compared to For Emma, the lyrics here are often obscured, and even if you have the lyric sheet in front of you, it wouldn’t help an incredible amount. He’s in full-on cryptic (yet literate) prose mode here, so for every earnest, wistful line like “I was unafraid; I was a boy; I was a tender age,” he’ll rhyme it with “Melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page.” This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—his images are often dream-like and nostalgic—but they don’t wind up having too much of an impact, even if they don’t detract from the mood. Ultimately, this album is the sound of a sincere, talented musician tinkering with new toys but not experienced enough with them to create something truly expressive. Despite this, there’s enough beauty here for at least three records, and Bon Iver is nothing if not beautiful.