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Album Reviews

Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Released: June 21, 2011
Label: 4AD / Jagjaguwar
Purchase: iTunes | Insound | Amazon

Bon Iver’s debut effort For Emma, Forever Ago was an outpouring of emotional tumult cast against the backdrop of a Wisconsin log cabin and not-yet forgotten heartbreak. Surrealist lyrics meandered through and around softly strummed guitar by way of a subdued falsetto, and as enigmatic front man Justin Vernon laid his miseries bare it was both intimate and understandable.  Four years on, and in their sophomore album Bon Iverthe American indie-folk ensemble have realized a sound that is superficially a bold step away from Vernon’s earnestly raw beginnings.

The log cabin is out of the picture, and Emma never mentioned. These two formative mainstays of For Emmahave been abandoned entirely, and in their place what remains is the question as to whether its’ follow up retains a similar sense of sincerity. Ultimately, writing critically about the ardor of this record is a conflicting undertaking, and stirs in the reviewer an inalienable sense of indecency. There is an emotional unrestraint to Vernon’s lyrics that makes any commentary feel facile – as if one were mentioning a subject-verb disagreement in a suicide note, or a poorly constructed metaphor in a wedding vow. These all seem so deeply personal and emotionally charged that perhaps fixating on trifling matters such as lucidity just isn’t decorum. The meanings of these songs are derived holistically – on their own, the lyrics oftentimes seem like gibberish and are possibly intentionally alien to a casual listener – and only after concerted effort. Very few listeners will be able to initially listen to “Calgary” and immediately glean that it is an ode to love between two people – who haven’t yet met. Once you realize this (which for this reviewer took all of four listens) not only does it seem beautiful, but it makes sense, too.

So is the record as honest as its predecessor? I would suppose that it probably isn’t, but therein lies the hidden difficulty of this record: who are we to judge the authenticity of something so obviously individual?

What can be said is that it has lost a sense of commonality that defined For Emma. In Emma, there was a prevalent sense of desperation that shone through the Vernon-specific subject matter simply because it was so relatable. Bon Iver falters here – the album is thematically incongruent. “Perth”, a “civil war heavy metal” piece is followed by “Minnesota, WI”, a declaration of strength following saying goodbye. This trend of dissimilarity is continued across the album and it is less connective as a result.

Where the album truly excels is in its impeccable arrangement, and the sheer technical skill that was less pronounced on For Emma. Their debut was economically constructed and at times sparse, whereas Bon Iveris a work of maximalist near-perfection. Whether this is as a result of Vernon’s continued collaboration with the egomaniacal Kanye West or the inclusion of new band members Mike Noyce, S. Carey (of solo fame) and Matthew McCaughan is unclear, but regardless there is an obvious musical confidence to the album. Consider the oft-discussed “Beth/Rest” – a superficially comical track that treads on the musical DMZ of early-eighties, Richie-esque love ballads but, perplexingly, pulls it off.  Very few artists would voluntarily include a church organ in their album’s closer, but Bon Iver has and the result is a track that is both soaring and tender not in spite, but rather because, of the unorthodox arrangement.

The similarities between Vernon and his frequent collaborator ‘Ye end here, though – where Kanye’s confidence extends into arrogance, there are no pretentions in Bon Iver’s work. Consider Vernon’s mournfully trill on “Holocene”, “at once I knew / I was not magnificent”: the persona presented throughout this album is immediately human and moreover likeable. This serves to imbue the record with a unassailable imperative to listen, just listen, and appreciate.

Bon Iver is as lovely, dark and deep as the woods of Vernon’s Midwestern hometown. It is a confusing and touching record, and consistently defies interpretation. It may be less relatable than For Emma, Forever Ago, but don’t let this belie the fact that this is a transformative album. Substantial, buoyant, staunch – Bon Iver’sBon Iver is, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, the best album of the year so far.


Standout Tracks: “Holocene” and “Beth/Rest”

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