To say that 2008 was a big year for Justin Vernon is a slight understatement. Armed with a striking falsetto and a haunting folk album created in quiet isolation, the singer/songwriter also known as Bon Iver shot from relative obscurity to critical praise and year-end “best of” lists.
The mythology surrounding the man no doubt contributed to some of his success—a bearded, brooding, and broken soul who literally traipsed out of the Wisconsin woods like some honey-voiced hunter with a sack of introspective songs slung over his shoulder. But it’s the actual music on Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, that won over critics and fickle indie fans alike.
For many, For Emma seemed almost postmodern. With its subdued emotion and windswept ebb and flow, the album possessed an intimacy that connected with people putting in their earbuds, turning on their iPods, and absorbing their music in a more inward manner. Campfire guitars consorted with soft-spoken drums, and hushed atmospherics curled up next to hints of horns, slide guitars, and other sonic ephemera. And framing it all was that voice—a soaring, sweet-timbered falsetto coated with heartache and layered harmonies, keeping the sound warm against the frigid Wisconsin night. What’s more, For Emma was the album-lover’s album, a carefully sequenced soliloquy that not only captured the spirit of solitude, but also stuck out in a sea of cursory singles. The Blood Bank EP fails in this respect.
Besides the fact that this fleeting follow-up smacks of a label trying to capitalize on Bon Iver’s newfound success, the Blood Bank EP sounds like an extraneous epilogue to an already accomplished work. The four-song set consists of both old and new material, allowing a glimpse into the songwriter’s past and possible future. And, to some extent, the short-player is consistent with For Emma in style, texture and mood.
The title track features traces of the same trembling guitars and sparse arrangements fixed behind that fragile, Antony-esque falsetto—this time crooning about love and “secrets” outside of a blood bank. The next song, “Beach Baby”, with its whispered strumming and feathery slide guitar, could be an outtake from Vernon’s cabin sessions, and the purling piano on “Babys” is not a far cry from For Emma either. But each song comes off like an afterthought and the EP as a whole seems disjointed and slightly forced, especially on the last track, when Vernon transforms into T-Pain, Auto-Tuner and all, on the very unwoodsy “Woods”.
For some folks in Bon Iver’s burgeoning fanbase, the EP might be an adequate aside until the next album. But whereas For Emma felt like a ray of sunlight seamlessly inching across the forest floor, Blood Bank feels like fluorescent-bulbed filler.