Remember For Emma, Forever Ago? Those rough-hewn, lonesome folk tunes? The shocking beauty of Justin Vernon’s raspy falsetto? The cabin in Wisconsin? The mythic, sad (and overblown) back story?
Remember all that? Good. Now forget about it. Leave it behind, at least while we talk about Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
Because the guy who made this record is not the same guy from 2007. Vernon has crafted a huge-sounding album, one so lush and sizeable that it is hard to believe it clocks in under 40 minutes. In its surprisingly short running time, Bon Iver, Bon Iver explores deep and varied textures, and Vernon and a glut of guest players craft a musical landscape that swells its way around his impressive vocals.
You can feel the influence of his recent collaborations on the album. The hazy layering and glitch-light processing of Volcano Choir (whose main players Tom Wincek and Jim Shoenecker appear here), the over-the-top soaring vibe of GAYNGS (though not the funk-lite tendencies), and even Kanye’s knack for stuffing his beats full of any and every good idea (though sadly there’s no surprise Yeezy verse here). There’s still something gentle to this sound — though, like its predecessor, it hides a powerful bite — but there’s nothing small about the record. This is maximalist stuff, and with all these resources at his disposal the sheer fact that Vernon can keep it all under control is an impressive feat.
Equally impressive is the variety of sound the record achieves. “Perth” moves from chiming guitar notes to a swampy, Crazy-Horse stomp seamlessly. “Minnesota, WI” shifts from those gauzy layers to a leaner rock-crunch. “Hinnom, TX” is blippy enough to remind you of Volcano Choir, but maintains a focus on vocal layering. Even “Holocene” — which sounds as close to the folky Bon Iver we’ve known — sprawls out with running snares, glistening electric guitar tones, and the faint, warm sweep of horns.
The subtle but powerful use of strings and horns throughout the record is perhaps its best unifying element. The horn work in particular — provided by Colin Stetson, Mike Lewis, and C.J. Camerieri — is imbedded deep in this songs, vital but never showy, and brings many of these songs to life in ways we haven’t heard from Vernon’s work before. Check the barely-there rasping brass on “Michicant,” or the triumphant finish to “Perth” to hear just how good these guys are.
As Vernon changes tempos and moods here — mostly with keyboards, by the way, and not as much with acoustic guitar — the players around him respond in kind. They feel like a cohesive unit here, like a band capable of an impressive range of sound, and you can hear how the players inspire and change Vernon’s approach. Sonically, the most divisive song from the album is bound to be closer “Beth/Rest,” which features only the airy soft-rock soaring of a Korg M1 keyboard. Enough will be said about it going forward, so I’ll just say this: Of all the 80’s soft-rock anachronism floating around these days, this is the most convincing, honest example of it. Whether that appeals to you or not is another question.
In the same way the album shifts and changes sonically, the lyrics themselves aren’t likely ones you can readily pin down. If you’re looking for the keen narrative of “Blood Bank” or even the declarative “Skinny Love,” you won’t find it here. These lyrics are impressionistic, sometimes impossible to figure out (“doubled in the toes annex it, it minute closed in the morning” he sings on “Minnesota, WI”) but that doesn’t mean they don’t yield some compelling moments. “Calgary,” perhaps Vernon’s crowning achievement to date as a songwriter, starts with “Don’t you cherish me to sleep,” reminding us of the short shelf-life of unconditional, doe-eyed love. In another clear, emotive moment, “Michicant” ends with “Love can hardly leave the room with your heart.” It’s the kind of aching line we’ve come to expect from Vernon, and these flashes of clarity help us make connections in his more difficult work.
Still, the words here are mostly sounds, shaped to be the perfect vehicle for Vernon’s voice, and in that regard they uniformly succeed. The melodic cadence, smart uses of assonance and alliteration, carefully placed internal rhymes — it all shows that, for all the obscurity of meaning here, Vernon is very much in control of how the words are shaped. There’s a confidence to his writing here that keeps us listening, that keeps us trying to figure it out, even as clear meaning eludes us.
And therein lies the success of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. It is, upon first listen, an undeniably beautiful record. But how that beauty was created takes some time to figure out. You need to dive in and untangle these tightly woven parts. You have to weave through the layered vocals to get at the emotional core of these songs. If its predecessor was about getting away, this album is about destinations. The songs are named after places, yes, but Vernon also always notes his surroundings here: the thaw, the leaves, the water, sometimes the room and the people in it. These are songs comfortable in their setting, they reach out instead of hiding away. It’s not surprising that Vernon has grown as an artist over the past three years, but what is surprising is that he’s grown this much. We can all go on loving For Emma, Forever Ago (with good reason), but don’t let your attachment to that obscure what Vernon has created here. No cabin, no crazy backstory. Just a great, inventive album.