Justin Vernon, the frontman behind the moniker, is an artist’s artist. Sometime before 2007, a sick and melancholic Vernon would retreat to a cabin in the northern Wisconsin woods to be alone with his thoughts for a full winter. The solitude would harvest a creative product I doubt Vernon initially anticipated. Furthermore, I doubt he anticipated just how explosive Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago would be within the indie-folk scene. But alas, it happened.
So here you are, years later, riding the wave of unexpected success and universal acclaim of a deeply cathartic work, facing the question: What’s next?
The first logical answer is to hang out with Kanye West and Peter Gabriel a little bit. Spend a little time on some side projects, like Gayngs. Maybe throw down a little four song EP that every network television show in existence will utilize. Then you start on your second full album expanding the sound, expanding the production, but keeping the same hauntingly beautiful atmosphere those winter months in the cabin inspired. You ditch much of the acoustic guitar for more piano and keyboard, some quirky synth, a banjo here and there, and…a saxophone? Yes. A saxophone. Enter album number two: The self-titled Bon Iver, making a mockery of the very idea of the “sophomore slump.”
As mentioned before, the haunting atmosphere that made For Emma, Forever Ago such a gorgeous album is back in full force. New instrumentation aside, Vernon now seems to be even more aware that his unique voice is the primary instrument that makes Bon Iver something special. The harmonies and vocal layerings are as tight as can be, and even though we may have a hard time making out the lyrics here and there (just Google some and see how many diatribes you find in the comment sections), we don’t really care.
Vernon’s primary talent lies in creating vivid imagery through his music. His songs create places in our heads, real, recalled, and imagined. This is the overt theme of the album. Every song evokes the name of a city. Some of these cities actually exist, some don’t. But the imagery is there in each and every song. From “Holecene” (Strayed above the highway aisle/ (Jagged vacance, thick with ice)/ I could see for miles, miles, miles) to the breathtaking “Michicant” (I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age/ melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page) to the tender “Wash.” (Climb is all we know/ When thaw is not below us/ No, can’t grow up/ In that iron ground), every song on the album evokes a time and place, seen or unseen. Atmosphere.
While the album strives (and mostly succeeds) for a certain unprecedented ambition, bending the laws of folk, it rubs just a couple elements against itself the wrong way. I would be betraying myself if I went through this entire review without talking about the saxophone. Let’s talk about the saxophone. First of all, I get it. Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson pops up in a few songs throughout the album, most notably in “Minnesota, WI” and “Beth/Rest.” It’s nice, it’s pretty, it’s sexy, and it evokes that slow, candlelit-bathtub R&B/Jazz that the 80’s so considerately gave us (See Gayngs). But I’m just not sure how I feel about images from Miami Vice popping into my head while I’m in a beautiful snowy mountainside forest. I know there are people out there bound to disagree with me (I’m looking at you, Pitchfork), but it just doesn’t quite work. In fact, “Beth/Rest”, while it accomplishes exactly what it’s attempting to accomplish, feels alien to the rest of the album. Furthermore, “Libson, OH”, the preceding track, offers virtually nothing more than a 1:33 transition, sans vocals.
According to a Treble interview centered around For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon claimed he wrote the lyrics for the album by recording a word-less melody and listening to the recording over and over while writing words according to the sound of the syllables of the melody. This method didn’t seem to change much with Bon Iver. “Minnesota, WI” for instance: Ramble in the roots/ Had the marvel, moved the proof/ Be kneeled fine’s glowing/ Storing up the clues. What? After reading Vernon’s lyrics, I’ve come to the conclusion that this syllable methodology is beautiful, but somewhat lacking. It makes his songs stand out, even his themes, but not his soul. If you gave me the anthology of Vernon’s lyrics, and nothing more, I could offer you this much about the man himself: He seems a slightly melancholic guy who likes the snow, nostalgia, alcohol, pet names like “honey” and “darlin,’” and some girl named Claire. That’s about it.
I’m sure a special kind of coffee-drinking, chain-smoking English major could somehow interpret brilliance behind Vernon’s lyrics, but what I see is a lot of pretty, thematic, evocative words that sometimes don’t quite form a focused idea or message. The music and the themes are beautiful, haunting, and transcendent. But how much more impressionable could Vernon’s music be if he put as much creative energy into telling us who he is and what’s in his soul as he does into the music itself? That energetic balance is what made Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More such a remarkable album.
In the end, Bon Iver is still wondrous and wonderful, a fuller extension of the already gorgeous sounds created in For Emma, Forever Ago. I can’t wait to listen to it the way I think much of the inspiration came to Vernon: Staring out a scenic window on a snowy day with a glass of whisky in hand. Too bad I live in Texas.
Thanks for reading, folkers.