In the time since the initial release of Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007, Justin Vernon (the creative force behind the project) has quietly risen to stardom. Signing to indie rock label Jagjaguwar, seeing the rerelease of For Emma achieve gold status in multiple countries, collaborating with Kanye West on the latter’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and earning producer credits on a number of indie rock albums has certainly kept the man busy. Much was made (and continues to be made) of Vernon recording For Emma alone in his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin – his native state – as his version of indie folk oozed a gritty sense of backwoods America. The album made countless top ten lists at home in the States and won him critical appraise.
Now, the band returns with its sophomore effort Bon Iver, and Vernon is poised to make an even bigger leap – that to status as an icon of modern music. And he succeeds, revealing himself as a poet in indie rocker clothing with the ability to meld genres from folk to hip-hop to synth pop to blues. The album arguably cements Vernon as one of the preeminent lyricists and singer-songwriters of his time. His lyrics ascend to beautiful – and sometimes incomprehensible – heights, telling stories of personal transformations, love, defiance, and perseverance. In an age devoid of classic poets, his esoteric lyrics remind us that we need look no further to find modern day ballads, odes and epics worthy of study. (Listen to Bon Iver in its entirety.)
Album opener Perth announces Bon Iver’s presence with a military-style snare drumbeat and horns reminiscent of a royal court. It slowly builds from a dreamlike attempt to lull and disarm the listener into an anthem proclaiming a rebirth. All the while, Vernon’s layered falsetto harmony propels the song’s lofty feel of new beginnings, as if he is just emerging from the cocoon created by his first handful of years in the limelight.
Like Skinny Love before it, Minnesota, WI is a song that should become part of the lexicon of American folk music while standing as a defining moment in indie rock. One of the album’s two highlights (the other being first single Calgary), the song blends hip-hop, indie folk, and blues into a driving tale of determination and resignation. Switching back-and-forth between the unwavering picking of a guitar juxtaposed with Vernon’s distinctive voice proclaiming “never gonna break / never gonna break,” and blues-infused fuzz riffs laced with layered vocals that reek of his work with Kanye, Minnesota, WI should get play in both rock and hip-hop circles.
On Holocene, Vernon sings of recognizing one’s own mortality and place in the world (“...and at once I knew I was not magnificent”), and how that recognition can free one’s mind (“I could see for miles, miles, miles”). The song’s title is the name of a geological epoch marked by the rise of man – ideal, considering the subject matter’s concentration on personal transformation and growth. The picking of a 12-string guitar and a brushed snare drum combine with Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto to create the feel of a lullaby and evoke the energy of a warm summer evening.
Michicant is a stirring, almost funereal, song calling to mind the care free nature of young love and camp girlfriends and boyfriends. “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age,” Vernon sings, recognizing “it wasn’t wedded love” and that “love can hardly leave the room / with your heart.” On Hinnom, TX, he again conjures up the sounds of hip-hop and electronica. Airy vocal layers and effects drive this song – which features Vernon’s less usual baritone – with only ambient music and beats adding to the aura. Wash. is a gentle piano and string-guided ballad that is further evidence Vernon has taken his craft to a level beyond what he achieved on For Emma, with a sound that is simply all-consuming and entrancing.
Calgary – the album’s first single, distributed for free on the band’s website – evokes the emotion of 80’s synthpop stalwarts Alphaville’s Forever Young, but with a darker sound. Although it takes time to develop, Calgary eventually expands into an introspective, daring and ultimately redeeming, ballad. As the song fades to black, Vernon posits “oh the demons come / they can subside” – a statement of resolve in the face of internal conflict. Watch the video:
The final song Beth/Rest could have provided a backdrop to the key montage from any 80’s movie. This is not a dig – the song is an elegant composition of piano, synth, horns and vocal effects that create an air of melancholy with a recognition that promise lies ahead – continuing with the album’s themes of introspection, self-awareness, and redemption.
Bon Iver is “a far more confident and lush collection than its predecessor, a vivid tapestry of dreamlike beauty and warmth” as we recently said. Amongst the glut of bands created by the ever-leveling playing field fostered by the internet, Bon Iver stands out as a unique talent. He has recognized his opportunity and grabbed it by the throat, releasing what will certainly be one of the year’s best albums. Genre-spanning with lyrics worthy of being labeled poetry, Bon Iver is nothing short of a work of transcendent beauty and an instant American classic.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.