Review Summary: This is not the sound of a new man.Bon Iver
is a cautious work. It floats just over the surface with unassumingly delicate chords, leaving an open space for Vernon to liberate his falsetto anew. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. As much as debate will continue over the perceived differences between this album and For Emma
, the sound hasn’t changed all that much. The songs are still driven by lonesome, pensive moods and Vernon’s elusive vocal melodies. There is a new approach at work though that leaves a distinctly altered impression. On For Emma
, there was an ever present sadness underscoring each lyrical phrase, but here, a sense of liberation adds a notable lilt to Vernon’s words. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the resolution of "re: stacks" directly implied the post-heartbreak sophomore album, but Vernon wisely avoids this cliché by ditching the narrative. There is no back story or overarching lyrical concept tying the loose ends together – just the sweetest, evasive melodies atop a rhythmic backdrop, left to drift away at any moment.
If that doesn’t sound particularly appealing then you might be in for disappointment with this new direction. The lyrics are now demoted to the backboard, leaving the melodies alone to stir and to move. Lucky then that Vernon possesses one of the most effortlessly affecting voices in the indie scene. The removed weight of lyrical meaning grants him space to experiment with his vocals, and although this has the potential to be messy, the control he retains leads to some incredible standouts. “Towers” is wordless in its impact but still deeply expressive, driven by an almost delirious sense of joy. “Michicant” follows with a more reserved take on contentment. The hopeful, swaying melody pulls forward without climaxing, instead dropping out to allow a gorgeous instrumental section to blossom. Moments such as these are achieved without the lyrical backing we are accustomed to, but they are no weaker in their emotional power.
Although the meandering aesthetic of Bon Iver
is bound to be derided by some as "timid" and "ambiguous," Vernon’s restraint is rather a symbol of newfound confidence, both artistic and emotional. The finished product involves the input of various musicians - a stark contrast to the isolated songwriting of his debut. He built these songs himself while leaving space for new textures: saxophones, pedal- steel guitars, and horns all make appearances, but do not overpower the natural grasp of Vernon’s compositions. This new instrumentation is welcomed, but unfortunately does not aid in recreating the moments of pure emotional release that defined For Emma
. It creates a new feel for the band, but will leave those yearning for resolution vaguely unsatisfied. Despite this shortcoming, Bon Iver
is still a success, bypassing the uneasy hump of an altered sound with strengthened songwriting and an intriguing new approach. It will not satisfy everyone, but for those willing to embrace the ambiguity and altered emotional triggers, it can be as impactful or even moreso than Bon Iver’s previous work.