Album Review: Bon Iver: ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’

If you’ve spent at least a few solitary hours with Bon Iver’s debut release For Emma, Forever Ago, chances are it holds a special place in your heart. The Walden-esque folklore behind For Emma’s supposed creation aside, it’s a deeply personal, deeply affecting recording. The sound is built around Justin Vernon’s acoustic guitar and carried by wonderful, harmonic layers of his weirdly transfixing falsetto. And while the lyrics are abstractly poetic, mystic even, the sentiments are unmistakable.The musical brilliance and transcendent emotional depth on that record evoked no dearth of “instant folk classic” talk, and Vernon’s portfolio would only broaden out afterwards: he dropped a cheerier, more electric, equally well-received EP, Blood Bank, in 2009; his vocals were forefront in the experimental electro sounds of Volcano Choir; Kanye West picked him up for three prominent features on his smash, end-of-2010 record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; he suaved around with Gayngs, the cheese rock, lite FM-revivalist supergroup.

And then came news of the next Bon Iver effort. From the beginning of the media coverage and press releases, there was no ambiguity on the resemblance (or, rather, lack thereof) it would bear to For Emma. This was to be, predictably for those who followed Vernon from project to project, a very different record, a very different sound. And the release of the first single, “Calgary”, confirmed just that.

From the beginning of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (intentionally so titled, as to play on the city-state theme that runs through the track list), it’s best to suspend one’s expectations for anything For Emma-like. “Perth”, the opening track, begins with the clanking dishes of what we can assume is an Eau Clairean diner; the following electric guitar and military snare drum aren’t of the “precious”, old Bon Iver brand per se, but then Vernon croons “I’m tearing up”, and it becomes clear the raw emotion is still there. Those elements soon come together over a triumphant, booming chorus of “Still alive, who you love”, and the drums later transform into an artillery-like bass drum explosion, backed by an opportunistic horn section. It’s an unrelenting delivery, and the result is blissful, cleansing even.

So Bon Iver, Bon Iver trots on with Minnesota, WI, a track bursting with found sounds and (somehow) subtly carrying over the percussive elements of “Perth.” There’s finger picking; there are more horns; a growling bass comes in; a steel guitar adds an unlikely western vibe. Yet, Vernon’s voice—layered, jumping from delicate to assertive and back—is still the primary “instrument” here.

In interviews, Vernon has described this album’s conceptual relationship to For Emma as what happens when you leave “that place”, that cold cabin of barren heartbreak. Thus, it follows that much of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is concerned with the past and the growth thereafter. Three songs early in the album–“Holocene”, “Towers”, and “Michicant”–while of too eclectic an instrumental constitution to be pigeon-holed, should probably be considered country songs due to their dominantly narrative-based, autobiographic lyrical element. It’s as though the listener is looking back at the events that transpired pre-For Emma with both nostalgia and regret. Coupled with some twangy guitar and strings and the general feel of sun-setting melancholia, and one is reminded that this record was made in the country, in rural Wisconsin, not Brooklyn. And while this presentation might prove challenging to some listeners, it’s not a sound that can be judged comparatively; it’s too novel, too different, and quite frankly too Justi-fied.

The second half of the album gets more experimental; here, the decidedly heavy influences of Vernon’s recent side projects become most evident. “Hinnom, TX” features the same UFO flutterings Volcano Choir was so fond of (though strangely, the following track, its tonal partner, “Wash.” could be acoustically re-styled and presented as a For Emma B-side).

Likewise, the first moments of “Calgary” are of the same airy 80s dream rock as Gayngs’ material. It’s an anthem of falling jubilance; the lyrics are wizened and axiomatic, reminiscent of For Emma cut “Flume”, and the guitar explosion that follows is unforeseeable. It’s a song so wide-reaching musically yet so determined in lyrical “broken love” focus, the natural reaction upon first listening is invariably of pleasant bewilderment.

And then there’s that notorious “last song” that Jimmy Fallon asked about, that every other pre-release review just couldn’t explain or endorse. To truly appreciate it, one must first listen to preceding track “Lisbon, OH”, an instrumental tune that serves as a mysterious alien force, lifting one from the terrestrially-bound content of everything else up to that point. With eyes closed, it’s not too difficult to imagine passing though layers of purple-tinted clouds and into the night sky.

Just then, the Hornsby keyboard jams in, the sultry, sultry sax makes an entrance, and an auto-tuned, fogged out Vernon belts out the ballad of the year. This is “Beth/Rest”, an indubitably sincere work that easily out-cheeses anything Gayngs put out. It’s an emotional thunderstorm, a catharsis, the cry of a man (and a band) who has weathered any number of outrageous fortunes.

On that final track when Vernon assertively sings “I ain’t livin’ in the dark no more / It’s not a promise, I’m just gonna call it”, the listener can tangibly feel his determination to leave the feelings of that cold cabin for good. But we know better, and that’s what makes it so penetrating. The moment is perfect, but there are many, similarly penetrating moments throughout the album. Therein lies Vernon’s genius: amongst these considerably novel musical swirlings, wrapped up in layers and layers of his falsetto and occasionally his rich baritone, the listener is encapsulated in his space (geographically denoted as Bon Iver, Bon Iver). Here in this space lies an unparalleled vulnerability to those fierce, calculated tugs on the heartstrings. And right now, nobody can tug quite like Mr. Vernon.