It’s been a long wait. When Justin Vernon rose to success, and ultimately sold 300,000 copies of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bush was in the White House and the Olympics were taking place in Beijing. The token solo offering since then (though Vernon has been busy), was a more experimental recording of four songs released as the Blood Bank EP, contained a song (‘Woods’) which would eventually become the basis for the closing track on Kanye West’s opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and earn Mr. Vernon a place at the table beside rap’s royalty during the recording and producing of the album. A heady rush as that must have been, Vernon returned to make a second Bon Iver album, a further exploration into his falsetto-fueled approach, but it’s a markedly different type of release – a spacious affair, nicely non-instant and leaning on some unusual influences along the way.
Confidence is something that’s clear from the beginning here, not ego. Confidence in a broad choice of instrumentation. In some oblique lyric usage. In making a record that plots a broad curve rather than peaking in parts with instant classics. The entry point could not be better pitched. ‘Perth’ doesn’t even shed a note for 10 seconds and a warm guitar melody is soon joined by polite marching drums, and the welcome return of Vernon’s falsetto. The song breaks and builds and breaks again, and ends in a happy melee of brass, guitar and those stamping drums.
Moving into the album, a listener may be tempted to follow the lyrics. A brave listener. Whatever the purpose of the band’s label JagJaguar posting the entire set of lyrics a few weeks ago, they are mostly obscure and impenetrable. In response to State’s query about spelling (“to fide your name / it’s something fane / this is not a place, not yet awake, I’m raised of make”), they responded that they were all correct and this was “the new vernacular” (no pun intended as far as we know).
If Vernon’s vernacular is dragging words together to create ideal sounds rather than sentences then it is fair to say he’s been remarkably successful, though it makes singing along a somewhat bizarre thing to attempt. The usage of words such as “Christmas night” and “stacks” appear at the right moment, triggering thoughts, feelings or ideas, without ever explaining them. It’s perhaps similar to the way Sigur Rós can affect a listener. When the lyrics conspire to make an full, comprehensible sentence it feels like a payoff, especially in the delicate and gorgeous ‘Holocene’ where Vernon cries “and once I knew, I was not magnificent…”.
Much of the rest of the album requires close attention or it can drift over you. ‘Michicant’ is almost a lullaby (go try it on your kids). Other songs seem to be happy with one idea or thread, as though when we’ve been spoiled by the multiple layers of songs on the first side. Oddest of all is ‘Beth/Rest’, the closing track which instantly has a late ’80s MOR feel, explained by Vernon on Jimmy Fallon’s show when he confessed not only his love of Bonnie Raitt (via a cover version) but also of Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Apparently he tracked down the same Korg M1 keyboard used by Hornsby for the purpose. Importantly though, its introduction is still a bit ‘wha?’ when it first appears.
A slow curve, rising in the beginning and plateauing somewhat in the second part, Bon Iver is a brave and beautiful album which has taken a less trodden path from a successful first album and has much akin in this approach to Talk Talk’s hushed and monumental Spirit of Eden. For all the album’s slow pace and fridge-magnet lyrics, Justin Vernon seems a man to trust and like Spirit of Eden before it, Bon Iver may just need time and patience for its full worth to be realised.