Review Summary: It might not top the (now almost sacred) For Emma, Forever Ago, but Bon Iver's sophomore effort is an engaging, beautiful and consistently enjoyable album that proves that he really is 'still alive for us, love.'
For Emma, Forever Ago is a tough one to follow. Whilst it wasn't initially met with the critical acclaim we now associate it with, the hype surrounding the one-man show grew and grew, to the point where it's legacy seemed almost insurmountable for a sophomore effort. And let's get one thing out of the way right now; I don't think this quite matches 2007's low-key wonder. However, that doesn't mean that I'm one of the (seemingly innumerable) people who claim that Bon Iver and Justin Vernon have churned out a disappointing phone-in for album number two. So, what exactly have they come up with this time?
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a curious album, especially when viewed in comparison to it's predecessor. Whereas the initial success of For Emma owed a lot to the almost fairytale story of it's conception (man locks himself away in cabin for three months, churns out masterpiece by himself) there was no such preamble here. And so it was with considerably less hype that the new album leaked. The intro to the first track of the album, Perth, immediately showed that Vernon had chosen to change the sound up on this album. The song begins with a creeping, uncertain guitar motif that repeats throughout the song, growing more and more triumphant as more instruments enter the fray. By the end of the deceptively short first track of the album, we've already heard horns, strings, electric guitars, crashing drums, and probably some other instruments buried in there, too.
And so it's apparent right from the start that Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a very different beast to For Emma, at least in terms of texture. This variety in sound and instrumentation is continued for the duration of the album, with more and more different subgenres and ideas being explored as the record progresses and grows. This new-found joy at embracing new musical ideas culminates in the final track, Beth/Rest, in which every guilty pleasure of 80s music combines, resulting in a gloriously unashamed ballad a la Peter Gabriel's best work. And of course, a lot of people hate it. It's about as different a closing track to Re: Stacks that the same artist could conceivably have come up with, and as such it's come under a lot of flack, be it for the 'cheesy' synths, the return of the dreaded auto-tune, or the gloriously vintage sounding guitar licks that permeate the atmospheric piece. These criticism are all valid, but they seem to miss the point that Vernon was trying to make with the song; he was completely aware of these 80s influences, but he wanted a throwback musical style to reflect the contemplative lyrics which bring the album to a nigh-on perfect close.
80s throwbacks aside, there's a lot more than sheer 'gimmickry' to Bon Iver, Bon Iver. As one would expect based on For Emma's poetic offerings, the lyrics in this second album are predictably delicate, oblique and, yes, still almost impossible to hear. That final qualm notwithstanding, when all is said and done, Bon Iver, Bon Iver would certainly seem to stand up to it's older brother in terms of word-smithery. The delicate-as-china sounding Holocene, in particular, features some gorgeous lines and evocations, and the emotions in the song come to a head as Vernon opines that he 'knew at once, that [he] was not magnificent.' The album also succeeds in another area in which it's predecessor did so resoundingly, in that the music always feels perfectly complementary to the music; one seemingly couldn't exist without the other, such is the suitably of the instrumentation for the sentiments expressed in the lyrics throughout the album.
And yet, despite all of this praise that I've been trying to get across for Bon Iver, Bon Iver, we come back to what will be the crux of the matter for many a small-minded fanboy; how it holds up compared to the (now practically sacrosanct) For Emma, Forever Ago. And as I said at the beginning of this review, I don't think it's quite as perfect. Quite simply, 2007's biggest sleeper hit had a kind of mythos around it, a kind of spiritual feel to the music that Vernon could never replicate, no matter how hard he tried. And whilst that's undoubtedly the fault of the fans and music press, rather than any failing on the artist's part, it's still an inescapable fact that will probably render all of his subsequent efforts as mere points of comparison to his 'original and best.' But to be honest, I'm perfectly happy with Bon Iver, Bon Iver being exactly as good as it is; no, I don't think it's better than it's predecessor, and I'm not sure that any new Bon Iver album ever can or will be, but it's a constantly engaging, beautiful and thoughtful album that feels entirely appropriate as the follow-up to one of the most revered records of all time. And considering the expectations that Vernon had to live up to with this, surely the fact that it's not disappointing at all is achievement enough.