Music Reviews
Bon Iver

Bon Iver Bon Iver

(Jagjaguwar/4AD) Rating - 8/10

Fans of Bon Iver won’t be disappointed by this eponymous follow-up. On its predecessor, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, frontman Justin Vernon managed to crystallize the essence of his isolated environment and implant it, perfectly intact, into each individual track. The resulting acclaim and accolades, all very much deserved, accelerated Vernon's ascent to notoriety and earned him all the typical accoutrements of indie stardom: sweeping tour schedules, collaborations with Kanye, and a song on the New Moon Motion Picture Soundtrack. As time passed, the whispers of doubt regarding Bon Iver's ability to follow-up with the same manner of success grew increasingly audible. This time there would be expectations. Fans, budgets, and studios would add variables to the simple equation of a vintage drop-tuned guitar and an inconsequential rural retreat. But Vernon has responded remarkably by coloring the new LP with Emma’s same haunting, hibernal hues despite studio production and a wider array of instrumentation.

To wind up at the same musical destination, he headed off in the totally opposite direction. Seven of the 10 track titles on Bon Iver refer to cities. An eighth, Towers, was written about the high-rise, communal living dorms dotting the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire campus. The entirety of Emma was composed within the confines of a Wisconsin cabin, but Justin Vernon has clearly left the building. In terms of setting, Bon Iver couldn't pursue a more disparate motif.

Remarkably, though, the sound still exudes the vulnerability and genuineness so beautifully imbued in its predecessor. Listening to Emma, one envisions Vernon's face bathed in light next to a roaring fire, guitar in lap, as he reflects upon the flames reflecting in his eyes. Troubling emotions slowly emerge as specters of Vernon himself, wailing in empathetic harmony as they are evoked and exorcised into the surrounding darkness. Now, vexed of his demons, Vernon strolls down each city's dimly lit streets and serenades its sleeping citizens. Gradually, they awaken and accompany him through the boulevards with a rousing, ever-enhancing array of instrumentation that echoes for miles and miles. So much of the band's success is attributable to mastery of mood, and somehow, using entirely different methodologies, they’ve managed to replicate that feat.

Few albums are truly perfect though, and Bon Iver is not without its flaw. For 9 songs, the album builds the type of tension and expectation typically released in some gloriously eargasmic final track. However, when the big moment arrives on closer Beth/Rest, the result is probably not what you're hoping for or expecting. Instead of some breathtaking symphonic climax, Phil Collins busts out of the town hall with a fog-emitting keytar and marches through the city square as he overzealously plunks out a piano line bathed in 90s synth effects. I applaud the willingness of Vernon to take a risk and go for the jugular, but this sound is too blunt an instrument for that.

Closer aside, Bon Iver embarks on a sustainable new direction for the band and is evidence of a successful transition from one-off wonder to durable outfit. Assuredly, when the third album drops, more people will be listening than ever before.