Review Summary: Each song acts like a personal journal entry, documenting Justin Vernon’s experience back with the living.
Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago
, was immensely popular in a kind of way that seemed to undoubtedly foretell disaster, or at least some sort of disappointment, for its successor. This was because Emma
wasn’t exactly well-regarded due to, say, originality or whatever, but because of the album’s background, its mythology, and how it perfectly presented its narrative. Its story – which is such a well-trod tale that I feel as if I need not repeat; go read some other review for that stuff – overwhelmed, overshadowed, and became the album itself. We, as listeners, couldn’t help but consider the personal hells Vernon fought through to record Emma
, and these thematic associations created some sort of unique emotional impact or resonation upon a listen to the album: every lyric seemed painfully and particularly personal, every song seemed chokingly yet intimately intense.
Thing is, this saddles Bon Iver’s eponymous follow-up with unrealistic expectations that it doesn’t deserve. Yet they exist nonetheless: we yearn hungrily to be whisked back to that same emotional state we were at when we heard Emma
for the first time, regardless of whether that’s fair to Vernon or not. We want this album to mean as much to us as its predecessor did.
Perhaps this is why Bon Iver, Bon Iver
doesn’t take too many drastic, dramatic risks. It’s essentially the album we’ve expected, something that’s more relaxed and confident – the latter aspect reflecting Vernon’s success, most probably; you don’t guest on a Kanye West album and not come away feeling pretty great about yourself, I’d imagine – but it’s still very much For Emma
’s successor, still very much a Justin Vernon album. Most notably, Vernon manages to retain the same intimacy and immediacy of a singer-songwriter album while operating in a full-band format, increasing his sonic palette and resulting in songs that seem sturdier, more full-bodied. “Holocene,” for instance, sounds tired, wistful, causing Vernon’s signature falsetto to seem a little more frayed and appealingly haggard than usual, and this is all augmented by Colin Stetson’s smooth, slithering saxophone and S. Carey’s muddled, endearingly imperfect drum rolls. These elements gather to form a richly satisfying whole, thanks to the assistance.
Other songs are just as statuesque, as confident, and stand as the best material Vernon has ever composed. “Towers,” with bright, shimmering electric guitars strumming instead of an acoustic, is rejuvenating and exhilarating. “Michican’t,” along with having an awesome-ass title, is a meditative self-reflection that acts as a summarization of a winter in solitude, along with being stirringly soulful and passionate in its own right. And “Beth/Rest,” the initially befuddling closer, is a campy, retro-sounding (perhaps some of that Gayngs influence?) epic that sounds as if there should be room for Kenny G guest spot, but ends up being just as enjoyable in its own, somewhat strange way.
Elsewhere, Bon Iver
is simply the lush-est, loveliest album of the year. “Towers” and “Wash.,” in particular, are two of the warmest, most inviting songs I’ve heard in a long, long time; they each seem to weirdly possess the aural consistency of a warm blanket, or a nice cup of cocoa. Vernon’s voice is the main draw: his singing has improved tenfold, elevating to stratospheric and angelic heights and then descending to a low rumble, a restless sigh, or a breathless declaration, all within minutes. It makes a song like “Wash.” possible, a minimalistic piece driven by little more than alternating piano plucks, relying on Vernon’s expansive vocal range to color in the spaces, which he does so appropriately. He’s never flashy – sometimes his vocals blend in chameleon-like with their surroundings, like in “Calgary,” where he essentially becomes just another instrument – but he’s always effective, often perfectly so.
A little more on “Calgary”: its opening, which finds Vernon’s vocals at their most incomprehensible and atmospheric, lost and jumbled against an imposing wall of frosty synths, is the most important few minutes of Bon Iver
. Here, Vernon gets lost in the framework of the other musicians’ input, lost within a crowd. Compare this to For Emma
, a solitary record, documenting not only one man’s exile from others, but, in turn, a whole generation of alienated individuals. On For Emma
, Justin Vernon was the voice of his depressed, displaced age. Bon Iver
is that man coming to his senses and joining the world again. The entire album is a collaborative project, in that sense; yet each song acts like a personal journal entry, documenting Justin Vernon’s experience back with the living, after being with the ghosts of memory for some time. This experience is always narrated by Vernon, which is why Bon Iver
has that exact sound that we all figured it would: it’s the same man, just at a different point in time.