Justin Vernon as Bon Iver set the music world on fire back in ’07/’08 with his album For Emma, Forever Ago, an intimate set of songs recorded while holed up in his father’s cabin for a Wisconsin winter. Coming off a breakup with a girlfriend as well as with the band he and his best friends formed, and mononucleosis on top of that, it’s understandable why he’d want a bit of isolation to recuperate. The album presented not only a stunning listen, but a young artist finally finding his voice and coming into his own. And all it took was some good old fashioned depression.
Knowing this, a question naturally arises: can he recapture the magic in a situation not quite so down-and-out? With new band members to account for? With the release of the new album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the answer is a definitive yes. In fact, I’d say that this new record actually blows For Emma, a seven-out-of-seven album, out of the water in almost every aspect.
Most of the song titles on the album are based on locations, with names like “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” and “Hinnom, TX,” but Justin has said that even the songs not named explicitly after somewhere represent a place. The album begins with “Perth,” a song that he reportedly wrote about the time he was with a good friend of Heath Ledger upon learning of his death. Over a slow-roasted, ascending guitar line, Vernon sings a chorus declaring that they’re “Still alive, who you love.” The cathartic explosions at the end simmer down and bleed into “Minnesota, WI,” fingerpicked guitar, banjo, and some double bass drums, all under a baritone version of Vernon’s voice contrasted with his signature falsetto. “Holocene,” perhaps my favorite track on the album, is sort of Bon Iver‘s “Lump Sum,” a lush track with tender guitar, a minimal bass part that lays a solid groove foundation, and a touch of soul. “Towers” is erected around a downtrodden folksy riff played on an electric guitar and a texturally-pleasant two-part vocal harmony, with a brief mid-track foray into two-step territory.
“Michicant” is a glistening guitar ballad with building ambience that finds Justin singing about memories of being young. “Hinnom, TX” is by far the most abstract song on Bon Iver, with staccato keyboard volume swells, interpolated bass notes, and various other synths that beef up the track as the baritone-falsetto duality bubbles to the top again. “Wash.” is an entire track built and wrapped around a two measure piano bit, laden with soaring strings, which may or may not be about someone named Claire. After all, Vernon has stated that although a previous girlfriend had the middle name of Emma, the Emma in For Emma, Forever Ago is more a time and place than a specific person. “Calgary” was the first track released, and it really demonstrated how different this album would be fromFor Emma. The song is led by some ambient synth atop some ’80s-esque, Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drums, and split by a snare-heavy, distorted bridge. “Lisbon, OH” provides an intermission of sorts, leading right into the final track, “Beth / Rest.” If you’ve ever heard the band Gayngs, one of Justin Vernon’s many collaborative side projects, you’ll probably have a decent idea of what this song sounds like. It reminds me of the old Peter Cetera songs my mom used to listen to when I was a child while she exercised. The Korg M1 tone Vernon uses just has that saccharine, romantic feel to it. It’s not cheesy, though; it’s absolutely beautiful.
I can honestly say that this is by far the best music I’ve heard this year, and maybe even longer. Everything about it is just right. He retains all the elements that made the previous album legendary, and builds on them tenfold. The scope alone of the album just eclipsesFor Emma, yet is so far from ever being excessive. It’s all here – the lofty, layered background vocals and harmonies; the tendency to fill almost every empty spot with some sort of ambience or percussion that immediately just works, whether it’s the twangy chimes of playing a guitar right by the bridge, roughly strumming muted strings, or throwing in some stray percussion for texture; the most memorable, unorthodox hooks; cerebral and personal lyrics; the enduring and earnest sense of beauty and vulnerability; and a childlike and honest sense of wonder about music. Each song is wildly different from the others, which is something that wasn’t as true on For Emma. What’s even more impressive is that Vernon himself took care of the production, which is masterful on the album, on his own. For my money, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is just about the perfect album, and quite assuredly one that won’t leave my listening rotation for some time.