Bon Iver, Bon Iver Review: Justin Vernon puts his Kanye West production lessons to good use with a new record of impressive textures

Bon Iver, Bon Iver Review: Justin Vernon puts his Kanye West production
lessons to good use with a new record of impressive textures

Every band has a story, but in the case of Bon Iver, it’s all but impossible
to distinguish the notes from the narrative. Back in October 2007, the same
month that Radiohead sent out its pay-whatever-you-please release In
Rainbows, a shaggy-haired Midwesterner by the name of Justin Vernon was
quietly self-releasing the moody, meditative record For Emma, Forever
Ago. The album was recorded chiefly over a single lonely winter in a
snowbound cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, and fans of those early
self-leaked tracks were wooed by Emma’s expansive, ethereal
atmosphere. Playing with ambiguous lyrics, and
manipulating auto-tune to distort and reinvent the conventional
singer-songwriter textures, the result was a haunting Rorschach test of an
album, a haunting tribute to the fragile, fractured despair of the deepest
heartache. Vernon’s voice, a creamy falsetto, was the record’s most
distinctive element, but the closer one listened to the tracks, the more the
meticulous, daring production design came into focus. For Emma earned
a rave Pitchfork review and then sent print critics swooning; not long
after indie label Jagjaguwar picked up the record for a proper release. . The record’s opening track “Perth”— each song bears a geographic label — swiftly bridges the ethereal
For Emma and the more earthbound “Bon Iver.” A gust of wind, a flurry
of clanging and a faded, echoed chorus of voices
are abruptly joined by snare drums, moving at a swift march. The pace
quickens, the voices come to the foreground, the horns chime in and “Perth”
builds into a triumphant, celebratory crescendo. If the earlier Bon Iver
record looked inward, inviting listeners to journey inside a wounded heart,
“Perth” makes it clear: This is an album that aims to shout from the
rooftops. The snow has thawed.

The risk that accompanies this amplified approach is that this new,
plugged-in sound will strip the band of its evocative ambiance. What was
most distinctive, and enjoyable, about Bon Iver’s free-floating debut was
the stark lack of elements at play, the open space that accented all that
heartache. And indeed, there is one track on Bon Iver where one can
feel the pitfalls of all this new pep, as the walls close in. It’s a bouncy,
three-minute track dubbed “Towers” so breezy with twangy electric guitar,
popping horns and bubble-gum choruses that it
all but flies in one ear and out the other. Of all the Bon Iver tracks yet
created, this is the most sparkling, syncopated and thoroughly forgettable.

But the “Towers” misstep is a revealing outlier, underscoring just how
effectively Bon Iver have made use of these new musical tools on the other
tracks, molding songs of greater intricacy and complexity. The euphoric
“Perth” segues seamlessly into the sprawling, seductive “Minnesota, WI,”
where Vernon alternates between a flowing baritone and a more staccato
falsetto , just as the music veers
between a bouncy electronic march, a static organ, and an urgent duet
between a plucky acoustic guitar and two swinging saxophones. Fans will fall
in love immediately with “Holocene,” a faint, solo guitar melody that would
have fit in perfectly on For Emma, building to a chorus that is at
once reflective and mournful: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent /
High above the jagged aisle / / I could see
for miles, miles, miles.” The heartstrings pull tightest on “Wash.,” where a
cascade of male harmonies float somewhere between the warmth of the violins
and the chilly syncopation of the piano.

It’s near the end of the record that one feels Vernon eagerly pushing the
envelope. The hypnotic “Hinnom, TX” features so much electronic manipulation
in its pulsating guitars that it could easily be
mistaken for a TV on the Radio soundscape; “Calgary” has already earned
comparisons to Coldplay with its soft-rock hum. Critics and fans alike,
however, have gasped at the finale: The Bruce Hornsby love
letter “Beth/Rest,” easily the most polarizing Bon Iver, Bon Iver
track. Swelling organs slide abruptly into electric guitar and screeching
sax, evoking an anthem right out of the ’80s. It’s more than just playfully
retro; this is Vernon’s unabashed love letter to his musical comfort food.

For some “Beth/Rest” will be too much; too earnest, too sappy. But it’s
really no more audacious in concept than “Perth” or “Holocene.” All
richly-layered tapestries anchored by lush vocals, inviting and mysterious
lyrics, expert production and an overwhelming sense of longing, the songs of
Bon Iver, Bon Iver exceed those of For Emma in nearly every
capacity. Yes, those initial cabin melodies had the benefit of novelty and
distinctiveness, but these new creations look further and plunge deeper,
exploring a much more diverse emotional terrain. And all structural analysis
aside, one shouldn’t waste time scrutinizing the obvious — that cuts like
“Beth/Rest,” “Wash.,” “Holocene” and “Perth” rise atop heartfelt and elegant
melodies, arriving at achingly beautiful pinnacles. Even with all the new
tools on display, there’s still the magic of twilight emanating from Bon
Iver, Bon Iver. The difference is that now it feels more like sunrise
than sunset, as if we’re connecting with a musician no longer haunted by
what he lost, but tantalized by what comes next. See the best albums of the 2000s.See how Bon Iver’s influence is heard on Kanye’s newest album.