A depressed Justin Vernon first contented listeners back in 2007 with Bon Ivers debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, a sparse collection of soulful bawls and folksy strums. The tracks dripped with an achy dew springing from a devastating break-up that Vernon rode out in an isolated Wisconsin cabin he called a recording studio.
His new self-titled album is more complex, more upbeat, more layered and likely to satisfy any listener seething for more after Emma. Bon Iver is still raw, and maintains an airy sound throughout, but makes a point to fill voids with the instrumentals of Sean Carey, Matthew McCaughan and Michael Noyce. Together they carry Vernons high-pitched harmonies sometimes mumbled to the final track on the album.
Vernon and Bon Iver are revered for choosing raw emotion over bells and whistles (is it even a choice?), and the sophomore album mostly continues the trend, though sudden tempo changes and mild experimentation make Bon Iver a little gaudier than its predecessor.
The album begins with an errant guitar and militaristic drums on Perth, with Vernons voice cutting through the clutter powerfully, but not loudly. Who needs to yell something so raw and profound? The entire track is an unrushed crescendo, beginning in obscurity and climaxing with a clash of drums, strings and trumpet a tune that orders the listener to march forward. So you oblige.
Minnesota, WI is next. Its odd for Bon Iver. A circuital guitar and drum combo evoke West African rhythms, then halt. Instruments yield to Vernons voice in a new time signature, where he mimics TV on the Radio. The similarities here are stark, until the band shows off rented saxophonist Colin Stetson.
Holocene is a reversion to Emma, but reminds us why listeners were so taken with Bon Iver in the first place. Its melancholy solo guitar is joined by light brushes on the snare drum that sound like snow sifting through pine needles on an evergreen. All of Bon Ivers tracks seem introspective, but none more than this, with the somber, elegant chorus: And at once I knew I was not magnificent / High above the jagged aisle / Jagged vacance, thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles.
Most tracks on Bon Iver are nearly indiscernible from one another upon first listen. Vernons lyrics are muffled, which doesnt help, but doesnt much matter either. After a few listens it becomes about how each track feels, rather than how it sounds, like how the bouncy keyboard beat on Wash. evokes raindrops on the sidewalk, and cautiously hopeful gloom.
But three tracks in particular emboss themselves on what was a plane of harmonious comfort. Lisbon, OH, Hinnom, TX and Beth / Rest are strident outliers, mischievous waves on an otherwise serene lake.
They are electric. Plugged in. Sonic.
Beth / Rest is especially transfixing, because the introductory piano could have easily been the theme song for Whos the Boss? Auto-Tune is used to distort Vernons voice, and short electric guitar solos snake in and out. The 80s have played such an annoying role in the music industry over the last five years that its tempting to scream Irony! But this track is as genuine if less raw as the band has always been.
Bon Iver is about the hunt. Each track begs to be repeated so as not to miss a scurrying note or a fleeting verse. There is simply more to behold here than on Emma. And unlike the bands first project, which revealed beauty solely in Vernons melancholy, the listener finds pleasure in Bon Ivers splendor, in their oddities, and yes, in their sadness.