He's Holding All the Tickets
The best thing about Bon Iver, Bon Iver is that it sounds exactly like the album you were expecting Justin Vernon to make. Unfortunately, the worst thing about Bon Iver, Bon Iver is that it sounds exactly like the album you were expecting Justin Vernon to make.
When For Emma, Forever Ago began making the rounds in early 2008, this quiet, hushed gem of a record managed to reach people in a very immediate fashion: blessed with a killer backstory (that, as fun as it was, was still not necessary to enjoy the album on its own terms) and some flat-out astonishing songs, the ever-bearded Justin Vernon soon became a bit of an indie hero, his haunting voice and simple guitar strums being all that was needed to create an album that will likely be remembered some decades down the line. Yet his success was a unique one in the sense that he couldn’t ever recreate it—For Emma was his Trinity Session, a true “lightning in a bottle” recording. To venture off back into that cabin for inspiration once again would be an exercise in futility, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that Vernon would take his time releasing new material—dropping a Blood Bank EP here, a few Dark Was the Night contributions there—likely due to the fact that he himself was trying to figure out what Bon Iver would sound like on something other than an acoustic guitar.
The secret to Bon Iver rests almost entirely in the title: it’s the name of his band. Although early shows did, in fact, feature just Vernon alone on his guitar, he slowly began adding to his lineup to eventually feature a group of talented musicians that could help expand his sound, no more apparent than on the drum-assisted version of “Skinny Love” that he frequently played live that’s arguably even more visceral than the studio version. As such, Bon Iver really is the work of a band: Vernon’s acoustic guitar is relegated to mere cameo status this time out. In its place are synths, horns, electric guitars, mighty drums, and enough Nico Muhly-esque string arrangements to kill a horse. For all intents and purposes, Vernon’s songs remain largely the same; what’s different is what he uses to play them on.
Things get off to a ripping start with “Perth”, featuring one of the greatest guitar riffs Vernon has yet penned. It’s a lightly ascending drift of electric strums and fingerpicks that attacks on its last few notes before quietly receding again. With each new iteration of this melody, Vernon adds drums, then a choir made out of his own voice, and eventually a full-blown horn section. His lyrics are just as cryptic as they always have been (the album opens with “I’m tearing up / Across your face”, which already cries out for your own unique interpretation), but at the end of the day, “Perth” is one of the most affecting and powerful songs in the Bon Iver canon.
What’s unfortunate, then, is that the rest of Bon Iver, Bon Iver becomes so fascinated with its own sense of textures and production that it forgets to marry these newfound sounds with any sort of redeeming melodies. “Minnesota, WI” sounds like an unreleased Broken Social Scene song—replete with jazzy interludes, rolling melody lines that recur at interesting moments, etc.—and although this proves to be a fascinating experiment, it sadly remains just that: a fascinating experiment that cannot come up with a cathartic line greater than “never gonna break” repeated ad nauseam. It’s not that Vernon should base all his recordings on catharsis in and of itself—that’s as wildly unfair to him as it’d be a ridiculously boring career for people to follow—but without release, all of his musical pomp feels extraneous without purpose. After all, he wouldn’t be trying to emulate sadcore kings the Red House Painters (the decent “Holocene” and the gorgeous, hushed “Michicant”) unless he was going for some sort of grand, powerful statement. However, as great as Vernon is at invoking the spirit of Mark Kozelek, he blows it in the execution, his high-pitched voice drifting off into the ether each time without bringing the listener along for the journey.
The other thing that weighs heavily against Bon Iver, Bon Iver‘s greatness is the fact that Vernon seems to have completely forgotten how to pace an album, as evidenced by the disc’s synth/piano-heavy second half. The echoing sounds of “Hinnom, TX” run right next to “Wash.”—which uses a remarkably similar chord pattern only sans the canyon-y reverb—which, in, in turn, runs right next to the warm pad sounds of single “Calgary” and then is followed up with the meandering instrumental “Lisbon, OH”. All of this makes for a stretch that completely blurs together without distinction. Although some of these moments work fine by themselves, they tend to drown each other out in the context of a full-length album. Had Vernon dropped the disc’s other major winner, the stompy little number “Towers”, somewhere in this stretch, this problem would’ve likely been avoided, but as it stands, Bon Iver, Bon Iver takes a notable dip in quality at the half-way mark ...
... at least until you get to “Beth/Rest”.
While Vernon has made some oddball moves before—like using only his AutoTuned voice on the stark balled “Woods” off of the Blood Bank EP—these risks have proved worthwhile, especially when Kanye West used said tune as the basis for the penultimate track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, taking Vernon’s fragile and haunting number and blowing it up into something more widescreen in scope and anthemic in quality. What a fresh relief it is, then, to hear Vernon decide to close his album with an honest-to-goodness ‘80s ballad that sounds like it could’ve been sung by Cyndi Lauper. From the cheesy synth chords to the flat percussion to the ascending guitar solos and sexy sax lines, it’s an absolute wonder to behold. It makes you wonder if “Lisbon, OH” was designed only to be a jarring, though effective, lead-in to “Beth/Rest”. What makes it work is that as shocking as this turn is, it somehow fits completely in place with the rest of Bon Iver. While Vernon’s earnest nature wears thin on the overly-produced tracks, it sounds completely in check here, showing that for an artist as serious as Vernon is, a little humor can go a long way in the end.
Despite its hype, its expectations, its blown up sound, and its many production flourishes, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is nothing more than a solid placeholder album. It’s not a quantum leap forward as much as it is something that reaffirms what we already knew: that Vernon is a very talented and skilled songwriter and he’s really getting a hang of this producing thing. He won’t gain any new fans with Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but anyone who enjoyed For Emma, Forever Ago will no doubt find something to enjoy here.