Unlike 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago; Bon Iver was not recorded in the woods by some bearded guy with a broken heart. And thank fuck for that. For Emma is a record that will never live up to its own mythology. And how could it? When Justin Vernon (recording as Bon Iver) retreated to that cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of dick knows where to spend the winter months recording an album with little more than an acoustic guitar and a sea of uneasy thoughts crashing around his head, the fate of the album that would emerge was sealed. No debut record could ever match the imagery and ideas evoked by the notion of some wounded soul welcoming exile in the wake of a broken relationship, literally escaping the world around them in a last gasp bid to salvage something, anything from the wreck, and pinning the last of their hopes on the redemptive potential of the musical process. And it didn’t. While a good record (“Skinny Love” was one of the best tracks of 2007), For Emma was ultimately a victim of circumstance. Its 2011 follow-up, Bon Iver is a fittingly liberating record that outshines its predecessor in just about every way.
The tonal differences between the two albums is achingly apparent mere seconds in to Bon Iver’s opening track, “Perth”. Building from the ground up, from silence to crescendo to silence, the song crams a wealth of ideas into its four minute and twenty two second running time – a military drumline backs resonant bass and echoes of treated horns; the earthy tones of Vernon’s warm vocal is pierced by electric guitar; and somewhere in the distance, angelic harmonies converge around ghostly synths. In making the transition from solo act to full band, Vernon’s Bon Iver has inherited the means to facilitate and refine ideas and themes that were only hinted at on For Emma.
Throughout its course, Bon Iver has a tendency to eschew traditional song structures in favour of letting its songs writhe and breathe in a much more organic fashion. This tact allows musical threads to be explored freely and dropped completely before a track reaches its conclusion (or even its mid-way point). While on paper, that might sound like it makes for disjointed and undeveloped musical expression, it actually fits well with the album’s overarching themes of liberation; songs are freed from the conventions of pop modernity and given free reign to branch out into unexpected territory. Take a song like “Minnesota, WI” for example, with its opening salvo of upbeat drums and elastic guitars indebted to something akin to modern indie – before it even reaches anything approaching a chorus, it has evolved into lo-fi dream-pop, and before it’s over, it will recall John Martyn by way of Richard Thompson. Never once does it feel scattershot or directionless though.
Vernon’s vocal performance is at least partly responsible for that, providing the album with an aesthetic core around which its shifts in identity can revolve. Much was made of Vernon’s voice in the music press before and after the release of For Emma, and rightfully so. While it would be easy for that voice to be pigeonholed as belonging to folk music, Vernon’s extra-curricular work with artists as varied as Kanye West and Volcano Choir hints at an altogether more impressive and diverse vocal scope. Bon Iver further highlights Vernon’s obvious oral talents with tracks like “Holocene” and “Michicant” providing majestic backdrops for some of the singer’s more virtuosic vocal performances.
Bon Iver builds to and concludes with two songs of escalating absurdity. At least, that’s how it feels at first. Penultimate track “Calgary” adds 80’s-style synths and Sonic The Hedgehog sound effects to Bon Iver’s ever growing catalogue of musical shades and textures. Coming so late in the album, it’s a curious addition and one that is undeniably jarring, but one that ultimately works; both as a song (“Calgary” sounds like the single Coldplay have been trying to write their whole career) and as a means of preparing the listener for what comes next.
“Beth/Rest” is like nothing else on Bon Iver and nothing like what you would expect from an album of Bon Iver’s ilk. While “Calgary” made use of 80’s synths, “Beth/Rest” is a faithful recreation of every mid-tempo, light rock-infused, radio friendly, cheese-tinged pop song the 80’s ever produced. It might be easy to dismiss it as a joke if it wasn’t so earnest. Lionel Richie keyboard, Kenny Loggins guitar solo, Clarence Clemons sax solo, Bruce Hornsby synth – it’s all present and it all serves as a bizarrely entertaining finale to one of the finest records of the year so far.