Review Summary: A welcome step forwards for, and addition to, a catalogue which may well become quite prolific.
Someone should tell Justin Vernon that most artists do things the other way around, but Blood Bank proves, if nothing else, that nobody really gets to tell the genius behind Bon Iver how he should make his music. 2007/8’s For Emma, Forever Ago was a bleak and emotional flow of imagery and serenity which slid graciously from technique to technique. Following such a critically acclaimed and moving record with a four-track EP meant that the latter album had a hell of a lot to live up to, and although Blood Bank serves as a pretty, occasionally touching bridge between (hopefully) full-length releases, it won’t – and shouldn’t – be vying with FE,FA for a place on indie-folk’s pedestal. That's not to say, however, that it isn't a well-constructed and -written creation
Although it retains much of the same atmospheric qualities as its pre-decessor, Blood Bank is largely able to distance itself somewhat from the winter-soaked sadness which seemed at points to be an integral feature of Bon Iver’s sound - thankfully it appears not to be the case - without losing any of the ethereal, transcendent down-tempo songwriting. Beach Baby, probably the most reminiscent of Emma to feature here, floats as expected among gentle acoustic guitars and Vernon’s tender, fragile falsetto, but still feels somewhat cold, owing in part to the frosty-edged solo at its end, but mostly due to the same gentle production that you’d expect. The title-track could also fit on Emma, but its more packed lyrical style and muffled beat give it a slight edge, and the lyrics even seem, for the most part, to be optimistic, although it certainly touches on darkness and insecurity at times. Despite its mention of snow, however, it manages to avoid the impressions of loneliness and the desolate texture of much of Bon Iver’s previous release. The curiously titled Babys is probably the weakest track on offer and becomes slightly too repetitive towards the 3-minute mark, but eventually builds and grows into itself, and is by no means filler.
For good measure, Blood Bank throws a curveball in the form of its closing track, Woods, which ensures that this EP lies as a separate entity entirely, and not merely a continuation of Emma. A-capella and largely (if not entirely) auto-tuned, it comprises just one repeated lyric, enhanced with each recital. Although on paper this idea looks shaky to say the least, once past the track’s sparse opening the layered harmonies and nuances lead you to probably the album’s most distracting and affecting place. It’s odd, and will probably make waves, but it is executed very impressively, and although its placement in the track listing gives the record something of an anti-climax, its quality certainly merits its inclusion somewhere.
To judge an EP on the same criteria as an LP is a ludicrous thing to do at any time, and because of the quality and unique feel of For Emma, Forever Ago, to do so here would be doubly foolish. Blood Bank is a collection of consistently pleasant and occasionally divine songs, but the collection itself is not consistent. It supplements Bon Iver’s previous material well but the chances are that if this EP had been released as their debut effort it would not have received the attention or praise, even scaled down, that Emma did. It certainly doesn’t provide anything close to a journey or an experience. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that Vernon is not afraid to experiment and it is a welcome step forwards for - and excellent addition to - a catalogue which may well become quite prolific. Sit back, relax and submerge yourself in Blood Bank; you won’t be disappointed.
The EP is streaming at http://www.myspace.com/boniver and due for release on January 20, and last time pre-ordering got you free stuff.