Under Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
If Justin Vernon was under any pressure to follow up the surprise success of For Emma, Forever Ago, it certainly doesn’t show. The Bon Iver leader spent the years since his debut touring, forming new bands, collaborating with some unlikely friends and, ultimately, writing a follow-up. All of these experiences contributed to the tone and themes of Bon Iver, Bon Iver; even For Emma’s influence is implicit in that Vernon made sure that this new album sounded nothing like it. The sonic shift is not so jarring if you’ve followed Vernon’s path from locked-away troubadour to indie pop hero. Shortly after the wide release of For Emma, Bon Iver released the four-song Blood Bank EP. Featuring a lush, rock-influenced (if not totally oriented) direction, the EP was the first sign that there was more to Vernon’s musical mind than acoustic songs about lost love and windowsills. The next step in Vernon’s evolution was the formation of Gayngs, an almost unbelievably retro soft-rock supergroup that featured, among many others, Bon Iver guitarist Michael Noyce. The highly-produced sounds of Gayngs’ Relayted album showed off influences that Vernon hadn’t previously exposed, namely an unwaveringly straight-faced devotion to gauzy ‘70s pop. Later, a few Bon Iver songs would be sampled by Kanye West, and drummer S. Carey would release his own album of intricately-textured meditations.
All this contributes to Bon Iver, Bon Iver. With nearly every song taking its name from a particular location, the album has a bit of a travel diary feel. Vernon begins in “Perth,” which gradually builds to an almost militaristic march thanks to Carey’s clattering drums. An early highlight comes in the haunting “Holocene,” one of the more overtly emotional songs on the album. While Vernon has a knack for painting abstract lyrical landscapes (often made even more indecipherable thanks to his evocative falsetto), he can also be disarmingly direct. Spinning a months-long tale of sexual frustration and disappointment, “Holocene” is perhaps the closest to For Emma that Bon Iver ever gets. Ghostly synths sweep across “Calgary,” which features some of the finest group harmonies on the record. There’s a strong effort to feature each member of the ever-expanding band, and the contributing musicians are absorbed gracefully.
There is no moment on Bon Iver, Bon Iver that will prove to be more divisive than closer “Beth/Rest.” Sounding like an outtake from the Relayted sessions, “Beth/Rest” conjures the smooth sounds of the much maligned and frequently mocked ‘yacht rock’ era. What’s most fascinating is the complete seriousness with which all of Bon Iver’s various styles are treated. Though there are fewer and fewer boundaries as to where Bon Iver’s music will go, Vernon and his band regard every possible influence with equal reverence. In turn, Vernon’s own music becomes vital, eclectic and expertly composed. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is both a reflection of Vernon’s recent past and a promise of the great things that still lay ahead.