Where he succeeded once in impressing swarms of cynics and romantics alike, Justin Vernon succeeds again with Bon Iver‘s self-titled sophomore album, fundamentally different from the first in orchestration and concept, though retaining a similar mood. For Emma, Forever Ago was created in a specific location and under circumstances which – thankfully for Mr. Vernon – could not be recreated this time around; hiding in a cabin in the middle of Wisconsin’s woods, it was clear in the aftermath of his debut’s release that what would come out would be a sparse, fragile, but nevertheless intense masterpiece, using only a couple of instruments, focused on the uncommon voice and bitter and resigned lyrics.
Three years later, after a song with St. Vincent and a pretty huge collaboration with Kanye West, start of Act Two: Enter the album Bon Iver. The first question that arose was: will the second LP live up to Emma’s expectations? Will the magic happen once again? The track list offers some insight already, if not on the sound, at least on the vision that led to the creation of the album, with names of places: some, like Wash. which could stand for Washington, are borderline imaginary, some are as real as you and me - though seen in the context of his constant touring, they become evanescent, in-between locations, such as opening track Perth where some of the less unintelligible lyrics read “this is not a place”. Where For Emma.. was focused and compact, Bon Iver is dense and visionary, which is not a negative thing, but a way of moving onto unknown territories.
The first song builds up slowly, going from guitar-plucking to a rhythmic parade-like drum marking the tempo for what explodes into a cacophony of sound which not even any of his more ‘daring’ works from the Blood Bank EP come close to, before closing in like the quiet after the storm and seamlessly moving into Minnesota, WI. From the beginning one of my favorite tracks on the record maybe for its moving away from Justin’s falsetto, which is only incorporated into the choruses, and for the generally new approach to voice, Minnesota, WI, by introducing brass is given a jazzy feeling, something I seem to recall from my childhood, something at once familiar but, in the Justin Vernon context, very alien to what my ear has been trained to listen to. With Holocene and Towers (at least the beginning of the latter), one is back on more familiar ground, the realm of the acoustic with hushed voices, never once tipping into dullness. Calgary, as the first single from the record, is an absolute winner: it introduces the new sound smoothly, thick with strings and synths. The richness of influences from something other than Neil Young, Nina Simone and Springsteen are quite clear and the collaborating artists and helping hands (Colin Stetson and Rob Moose, to name just a few) all had a turn at polishing, arranging, and probably suggesting, allowing him to delve into the waters of experimentation. The at once complex and easy-listening closing track Beth / Rest, on the other hand, might be a little difficult for returning fans: a five-minute-long monster which could easily be a little longer, reminiscent of 80′s synth-pop music, full with voice effects and featuring some damn voluptuous saxophone – read partly Avalon-era Roxy Music but also (and especially) Phil Collins. Described like that, it might sound awful, but really is not; it manages to at once be ethereal, beautiful, and somewhat de-dramatizes the situation For Emma… grew from. All in all, Bon Iver is a deeply moving, soul-enriching and elegant album and though one wouldn’t call it joyous, it moves into a slightly lighter place, out of the winter into a somewhat sunnier season – maybe the closest to being happy that Justin Vernon could ever be.Bon Iver‘s new album is out on Jagjaguwar as of June 21st; you can pre-order it (and I urge you to!) here.