Few artists in the last five years have captured the attention of the entire alternative music scene as completely as Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s first album, the essential For Emma, Forever Ago, is common musical parlance, as famous for its searingly personal songs as the tale of its production; for those out of the know, Vernon recorded nearly everything alone, in a log cabin in Wisconsin. The pared-back sound of that incredible début was balanced by its intimate, deeply passionate lyrics and delivery. Vernon’s piercing falsetto and at times raw vocal delivery gave you the feeling that here was a man truly bearing his soul on record. It was something we hadn’t heard done well in a very long time and made Bon Iver an instant icon, For Emma often lauded as the best album of the decade.
No pressure, then.
In the three intermittent years, Bon Iver has gone from an folk darling to a worldwide buzzword for alternative music: 2009’s Blood Bank EP was strongly received, and Vernon recently contributed vocals to Kanye West’s similarly self-reflective album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year. Bon Iver, the group’s second full album, arrives amid a heap of hype. Some may worry that the recent iTunes gaffe that led to its leaking out almost a month before release date (June 21) will dull the impact of Bon’s second effort. Such concerns, however, are allayed within minutes.
For what Bon Iver does is evade the pitfalls of the trite-but-true cliché of the ‘difficult second album’. What certainly helps is the time taken over its production – the maxim that “you have your whole life to write your first album and the label gives you 6 months for your second” is mercifully untrue. Marrying the gorgeous, deeply intimate joys of For Emma with a slightly more band-oriented sound, Vernon’s group’s second album is electric in more ways than one.
The pain-stricken power of the début remains, but this time the awesome force of Vernon’s voice and guitar are augmented by additional instrumentation, without sacrificing the simple, pared-back feeling which so characterised For Emma. The drip-drop ‘Michicant’ and the echoey ‘Minnesota, WI’ feature the same dreamlike acoustic wonder which Vernon has already made his own, but showcase the shift in Bon Iver’s style; the former building on a haunting, harmonic opening with subtle layers of electronica and brass, and the latter employing a lo-fi electric guitar in rhythmic phrases led by Sean Carey’s drumming.
The electric sensibilities which began to creep into Blood Bank – the piano loop in ‘Babys’, the use of vox humana keyboards in the glorious ‘Woods’ – are more present here, most notably in ‘Calgary’. Vernon’s voice, which is wonderfully suited to simple solo performances, is also oddly perfect for layering and looping electronically. Such is the piercing, unique tone his vocals achieve that it’s often hard to tell if the sound has been manufactured or if this is simply an extraordinary vocalist. In truth, listening to ‘Wash.’ or the standout ‘Holocene’, you feel it’s a bit of both. Adding Carey’s complimentary voice – showcased wonderfully on his solo album In The Dirt – simply enhances the emotion, be it pain, passion or love. Throughout, it’s nearly impossible to find fault in either the songwriting or the delivery. Bon Iver are simply an extraordinary force.
Taking a sound which people already love and improving it is incredibly tough. Think of the number of live bands you’ve seen where you simply thought “please just go back to playing the old stuff”. We’ve all done it.
Of course, at just two full albums and one EP, you could easily consider all Bon Iver’s output ‘new stuff’. But in an age dominated by internet leaks (of which the band now know far too much) and instant critical reaction (from internet folks like myself) even a break of a few years seems eternal. Especially when waiting for an album this exciting.
Luckily for all, Bon Iver is a triumph. Harnessing the individual majesty of Vernon’s talent is no mean feat; this follow-up feels far more like a band’s album than a one-man show. Of course, Vernon is still the headline attraction, but the expansion of Bon Iver’s sound ensures that there’s more to offer here too. With repeated listens the finer points of this eponymous record reveal themselves ever further, and Bon Iver the album seems certain to lift Bon Iver the band back up to their position atop the bottom-heavy pyramid of alternative music.
That is, if they ever left it in the first place.
Best tracks: ‘Holocene’, ‘Michicant’, ‘Towers’, ‘Beth / Rest’.