Artist’s Website: www.boniver.org
Wisconsin musician rewrites the contemporary folk template. Again.
Justin Vernon likely prefers that you just forget any stories you may have heard about the genesis of the first Bon Iver album, because they are about 90% bullshit.
The media created a mythology around For Emma, Forever Ago that goes something like this. A man is dumped by his girlfriend, he retreats to a cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin to lick his wounds, shoots a deer, butchers his own venison, and over the course of a good winter (a bon hiver, if you will), all alone in the woods, he records a therapeutic folk album of stark, ethereal beauty on a simple tape recorder. It’s too bad that the creation myth is rife with errors, despite looking good in print. Truth be known, For Emma connected with listeners not because it’s a triumph of joy over sadness or any other synthetic sentiment, it connected because it’s a good record.
Vernon has spent most of the past three years touring to promote For Emma and toying with ideas for a new musical direction. 2009’s Blood Bank EP wasn’t a huge step-out from his cabin songs, aside from some production twists. His side-project Gayngs is more of a soft-rock busman’s holiday than a serious endeavor, a chance to blow off some steam in the vein of Neil Young with his Shocking Pinks. Last year’s two-song collaboration with Kanye West could be filed under “bizarro-world ideas that didn’t work”. But hey, when Kanye calls you up and asks you to fly out to Hawaii to jam, you get on a plane, right?
Finally, Vernon has returned to his muse with a new self-titled album. Bon Iver includes some of the underpinnings of his previous work, primarily the falsetto vocals and introspective subject matter. That said, the overall sound has grown to become a chamber-pop riff on folk music. A group of additional musicians have been enlisted to create a fuller, more lush sound. The ‘woodsman with a tape recorder’ approach has been put away for now, yet the results are equally breathtaking. If the first record was a series of charcoal sketches, the follow-up is an explosion of acrylic brushstrokes.
The album starts off in brilliant fashion with “Perth”, a song that unfolds in layers from an initial hush of guitar and vocals. The next four minutes see the introduction of martial drums, melodic bursts of distorted guitars and horns to Bon Iver’s arsenal. The quiet/loud dynamics are stunningly emotional.
Most of the songs on the album are named after place names, either real or imagined. The names likely aren’t meant to be literal – Minnesota, WI isn’t a real place but the name and the music probably reminds Vernon of northern lake country. The song “Minnesota, WI” is notable for featuring a blend of falsetto and soulful tenor vocals. Falsetto is reportedly a style that Vernon fell into when he searched for his own voice, but discovering he can sing just fine in his lower registers is a minor revelation.
The song that has received the most satellite radio airplay of late is “Holocene”. A wistful lyric about autumn bleeding into winter unfolds over a repeating, chiming guitar melody and brushed drums. The words can be interpreted a million different ways, but you get the feeling that the protagonist has been confronted by something so profound that he’s been humbled to his core.
“Towers” is a bit of a departure. The twang of the guitars and the upbeat pace relocate it closer to country music territory. “Michicant” brings the album back to the insular chamber-pop zone with a waltz time signature. “Hinnom, TX” relies on very heavy reverb to convey a sense of disorientation. Likewise, “Wash.” is something of a one-trick pony. It’s constructed around a very simple piano melody and seems like an underdeveloped idea. Perhaps it’s simply meant to be a rest stop on the road less travelled.
First single “Calgary” finally appears in the last quarter of the record. It’s likely the most commercial song on Bon Iver, but doesn’t sound anything like a typical radio hit except for the vaguely Death Cab For Cutie beat. Walls of guitars and waves of vocals wrap in and out of each other like the strands of a wire rope.
The most polarizing track on the album is the last one. You will either love or hate “Beth / Rest”, depending on how you feel about 1980s AOR synth piano tones (think Steve Winwood’s “The Finer Things” or Bruce Hornsby’s “Fields of Gray”). Vernon has hinted that the song is about how part of someone’s individualism dies when they take a leap of faith to fall in love, and it’s his favourite thing on Bon Iver. Perhaps his intent was for the listener to revel in the familiar production and heart-felt sentiment instead of being distracted by it. On that level, it’s a fine album closer.
There’s no way to say where Bon Iver goes from here. But with two very different and highly rewarding albums to their credit, the sky’s the limit for Justin Vernon and his expanding troupe of bandmates.