Album Review: Bon Iver ‘Bon Iver’

‘For Emma’ was so 2008. Welcome to the newer, meaner, denser Bon Iver. A year ago it seemed alien to imagine a Bon Iver song that required more than a couple of instruments, but in reality this new, more complex sound is a direction that Justin Vernon has been hinting at in his live shows for the better part of three years. The fact that he never tried to transcribe the sparseness and desolation of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ into a live show, but instead insisted on using a full band and plenty of instrumentation, was perhaps an indicator that he thought the album was impossible to recreate. And that he hasn’t tried to recreate ‘For Emma’ in Bon Iver’s latest self-titled album turns out to be nothing short of a stroke of genius.

Bon Iver’s debut album, as incredible as it was, was utterly unique. It was born out of a strange coincidence of circumstances that saw Justin Vernon isolate himself in a remote Wisconsin cabin. It was carried by the ambiance of that cabin, as well as the soaring falsetto of Justin Vernon, but not much else. It was sparse and beautiful, as moving as it was minimalistic. But it was also truly impossible to recreate. Any attempt to do so would appear artificial, whether it involved Justin Vernon once again cutting himself off from the outside world to record music or electronically added background noise intended to capture the same feel. No, there was no way to make another ‘For Emma’. Instead, Bon Iver have gone for something completely different in their sophomore album, and, somehow, it has ended up just as captivating and beautiful as their first record, which is something I thought was truly impossible.

Each track on ‘Bon Iver’ is named after a location, presumably one that has inspired the writing of the song. Depending on your perspective that’s either a nice touch or a bit gimmicky. Geographic symbology has always been very strong in Justin Vernon’s songwriting, but up until this point it had always been buried just beneath the surface. I can’t help but feel that by choosing the path that they have Bon Iver have removed some of the ambiguity, subtlety, and mystery from their music, but regardless it’s not something that will affect the experience of listening to the album.

Doing so is an overwhelming experience. Opening track Perth (represent) was sampled as a teaser for the album, but in its entirety it is somewhat of a slow burn of a song, building slowly from just a guitar to somewhat of a cacophony of sound, the likes of which we haven’t heard in Bon Iver’s music to date. Minnestoa, WI introduces an almost jazz-like vibe with a restrained brass section before transitioning into a furiously played banjo. Holocene could almost pass as an older Justin Vernon song, only more polished, but it’s the electric guitar of Towers that captures all your attention. It’s just a sublime song, and is just as emotionally moving as ‘For Emma’s finest moments, which is truly saying something. Some songwriters write lyrics that could easily be mistaken for poetry, and Towers reasserts that Justin Vernon is one such songwriter:

For the love, I’d fallen on
In the swampy August dawn
What a mischief you would bring young darling!
When the onus is not all your own
When you’re up for it before you’ve grown

Closing track Beth / Rest is easily the oddest song on the album. It unmistakably channels an 80s vibe that up until this point in the album had just been an undercurrent. It’s a polarising pop ballad that seems so foreign coming from the same person who wrote Skinny Love, and admittedly it does seem slightly out of place on the album. All this being said, it is still one of my favourite tracks on the record. While it may be out of place given what it is surrounded by, the sound actually suits Bon Iver really well, and they pull it off beautifully.

I’ve deliberately tried to prevent turning this into a track-by-track review, because ‘Bon Iver’ is so much more than its ten songs. I haven’t even mentioned the mesmerising buildup of first single Calgary, the angelic backing vocals of Hinnom, TX, or the delicate keys of Wash.. ‘Bon Iver’s at times complex instrumentation may seem dense when held up against ‘For Emma’, but the two albums share one thing in common: they both carry an emotional resonance that defies explanation or analysis. They are both inexplicably moving records that are going to stay with you for a long time.

‘For Emma’ is one of my favourite records of all time, and part of me was dreading listening to its follow-up, because surely nothing could do it justice. I was dreading an attempt to recreate its magic that failed, as it inevitably would. It must be a bitch to follow up perfection, but Bon Iver have somehow managed it. This is a divine album in its own right, a captivating listen that will move you and take you on a journey, regardless of whether you are skeptical or wildly hopeful going in. It’s more surreal than it is raw, more otherworldly than it is personal. It may not be perfect in the same way that ‘For Emma’ was, but then it was never going to be. Instead it is a majestic and beautiful album in a way all its own.

Get ready to fall in love all over again.

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