Aural beauty is somewhat of a misunderstood aspect of radio-era Rock n’ Roll. The quality itself has always seemed strangely divisive, as though admitting to an admiration for loveliness in your music was somehow fundamentally wrong. “Too poppy” or “too nice” or an all-time favorite: “mom-music” were common battle cries of those unwilling to invest their time for layers beyond the dainty melodies and innocent instrumentation. Coupled with radio-friendly tweens waxing poetic about their weekend and fluttering middle school hearts invading our psyches quite constantly—I can see where some develop their distaste for pop and ultimately beauty in music. Still when presented with an album like Bon Iver it would be surprising to see even the staunchest of hearts not at least tap their feet. While a great deal of the record’s charms ultimately feel borrowed (Justin Vernon has been getting around) this second outing by the band takes strides in quelling the theory that there was little more to Bon Iver than one solid record and an intriguing back story. For Emma, Forever Ago was a prisoner of its own secluded-log-cabin lore; Bon Iver on the other hand is Vernon’s music seen through a vibrant kaleidoscope.
Not to harp on For Emma, or its fabled creation but amongst all the positive facets the record offered it was hard to escape the album’s desolateness. Unsurprisingly enough that break-up album recorded in the middle of the woods actually did little more than to highlight the beautiful aspects of sadness and being alone. This was a unique characteristic of For Emma, but also placed the burden of “mood record” a top Justin Vernon’s wispy coos and dreamy folk music. Bon Iver instead is not attached to any specific emotion or place but flows more like a loosely narrative ballad. Song titles like “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” “Wash” and “Calgary” allude to a trek across maps with a lyrics sheet populated in curious observations and woes for a return home. Fitting as Bon Iver presents Justin Vernon as less a timid, broken sob-story and more an invigorated, globe-trotting wunder-kid with a penchant for dreamy production tactics and a heart rooted in home.
This livelier approach to the band’s whispered folk mumbles is such a successful performance it brings to question how and why they avoided it for so long. Even his 2009 EP Blood Bank, though blissful in comparison to his debut there was little hint of the impending joyous eruption. Not to sell Bon Iver as some pan-ultimate frolic through a meadow of sunshine and fun—the excellent mid-section (“Michicant” “Hinnom, TX,” and “Wash.”) of elegant acoustic-folk tunes things down a bit—but the maturation into a full band and presentation of their music as Bon-Iver-via-Post-Rock works to their advantage absurdly. Vernon’s voice, a tempered, delicate croon has been making its way around the music world. From popping up on various records of his independently-inclined peers to making a legitimate step into the world of hip-hop and asserting himself as a bit of a hook kingpin. This launch into the spotlight, so to speak, may have allowed Vernon to shed the shell that kept him too anxious and rigid on his own records. Now he steps into the light for all to see. Thing is though, with Vernon and his Bon Iver project, there is a wealth of possibility to be appreciated now that someone’s bothered to turn on the brights.
When I say it is easier to “see” Bon Iver now I do not mean so much Vernon himself or his band mates but more so his musical direction; songs like “re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” were weighted in the forlorn experiences they were associated with. Tracks like “Perth” and its soft, building drums that Vernon rides out like a wave as he exclaims: “Still alive for you, love!”—“Holocene” and its leisurely finger picking and pedal steel guitar (courtesy of Greg Leisz) or the bellowing synths of “Calgary”—they all possess this sense of motion. Preferring to burn off slowly as they work to an eventual climax of multi-tracked Vernon’s, cascading drum fills (S. Carey in rare form) and woozy keys the band revels in the space they’ve given themselves. Building to a purpose rather than meandering around in honest yearning suits the band well. Even as For Emma, had its gems the idea of the group striking gold once again was a bit farfetched. Bon Iver instead presents Vernon as more than a sappy dude-with-a-guitar and further Bon Iver as more than just Justin Vernon and… Every bit of the record is sopping with delectable production tweaks, guitar lines and surprisingly intricate drumming solidifying the project as not only a real, full band—but one to be extremely excited about.
Even as parts of the record can feel distinctly familiar—“Towers” explodes in psychedelia similar to the best Grizzly Bear tunes while “Hinnom, TX” sounds like a Spoon song left over from the Ga x5 (2007) sessions—Vernon’s production and songwriting overpower any perception of detrimental resemblance. These moments simply wash away amongst the shimmering key fills, woozy pedal steel guitar and luscious drum beats. Bon Iver though is less a test of quantity (there are a shitload of instruments used however) and more a testament to quality. At just shy of forty-minutes the record is shockingly expansive and engulfing. By the time “Beth/Rest” begins its delightfully corny lead in keys and Vernon’s auto-tuned coos float in the album is on its way out when you are just starting to settle in. The song itself, drenched in schmaltzy 80s synths and airy guitar lines, is a exemplification of what Vernon and co. have been able to do with this record. Even under all the baggage, all the teasing, the borrowed production tweaks and hushed falsettos is an intensely personal record built on enough powerhouse songwriting to allow the gilded edges to shine through their tarred covering.
2. Minnesota, WI
6. Hinnom, TX
9. Lisbon, Oh
Bon Iver is an indie folk band, and one of Justin Vernon's current and most notable music projects to date. The band also consists of Mike Noyce, Sean Carey and Matt MacCaughan.
The name 'Bon Iver' (pronounced "bon ee-VAIR") is a play on the French phrase 'bon hiver;' for 'good winter'. Vernon independently released Bon Iver's debut album: For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007; most of which was recorded during a four-month stay in a remote cabin in Wisconsin, USA.... read more