It is clear from the first listen to Justin Vernon’s music that he is particularly influenced by the seasons and his surroundings, so his choice to release this album in the middle of the year, on the cusp of summer, says a lot about the emotions he is trying to convey. In the frozen soul of For Emma, Forever Ago and the incandescent campfire of Blood Bank EP, both recorded in a creaky wood cabin in the Northern woods of Wisconsin, winter and the early thaws of spring were very much the seasons that preoccupied Justin. Comparatively, Bon Iver begins with an Indian Summer that moves through winter and further into Spring. The album feels like a period of Justin’s life where he’s taking stock of his whirlwind success, travelling home to his beloved Eau Claire, WI and gaining perspective. Lyrically Justin still possesses that cryptically Ginsbergian quality, but like Ginsberg these vivid ramblings put you in the scene more effectively than a prepositioned piece of prose. Justin reveals very little, but in his succinctness speaks volumes: “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree, / Saying nothing, that’s enough for me.”
Though I may receive a lot of flak for this comment, it is evident that Justin has been influenced by his collaboration with Kanye West on West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yes, ‘Ye can be a gayfish, but there is no denying he is a masterful and intelligent arranger. Justin was already a visionary in his compositional skills, but on this album his arrangements are deeper and more complex: Richer, lusher, more textured. After being picked up mainly for his acoustic confessionals ‘Flume’ and ‘Skinny Love’, Justin has been wary of being pigeonholed as a voice and guitar singer-songwriter: “I don’t want to be the guy with an acoustic guitar singing songs, because that’s boring for the most part.” This is probably one of the reasons Justin has opted for an even more ‘plugged in’ and layered sound than his previous efforts. Another reason probably has something to do with the process of building April Base Studios, WI which accompanied the recording of the album: “The whole time we were building the actual space is when the record was being made, sort of like this building metaphor for the record […] It just feels like this space where a lot of things happen.”Converted from an old veterinarian clinic with friends and situated three miles from the house Justin grew up in, as April Base Studios grew into a home cum studio so did the scope and depth of the record: “I think the reason this record sounds the way it does as compared to For Emma is the excitement of not being in my early twenties anymore and building this place with my friends and really expanding on what Bon Iver could be as a project. Being like a team in building this place had a lot to do with the new record’s colour.”
Exposition ‘Perth’ sounds like the outcome of a jam session if Mogwai invited Justin to provide vocals: A towering and vast multilayered wall of roaring guitars and drums, growing and erupting around you like a volcanic ridge, capturing the infinite potential and barely contained energy of those wild summer nights. As the raging ‘Perth’ fades, ‘Minnesota, WI’ enters on an echoing guitar into a peaceful starry night. ‘Holocene’ feels like the first autumn leaves falling and the novelty of seeing your breath hang in the crisp October morning air, the signal of the changing seasons. It’s a gentle fingerpicking hymn with the tranquil energy of a running stream that contemplates the paradox of being unique but at the same time “not magnificent.” Thankfully it seems that success has not cured Justin of his introspection.
Towers possesses the reckless abandon of scattering diligently collected piles of dead leaves, bouncing along on a lively rhythm guitar before building bold horns and singing lapsteel into one of the album’s more anthemic moments. Changing gears, the grounding guitar coda of ‘Michicant’ has the cadence of a slow dance while wistful vocals remember an old love through the haze of nostalgic brass and synths. ‘Hinnom, TX’ feels like waking up one foggy day in a strange town and realising that there is nowhere you’d rather be but back home right now. The epiphanic, echoing piano offers sparse backdrop for the soothing interweaving of deep and high vocals. It seems to signal the beginning of regeneration that permeates Wash, where you step off the train in your home town, and pass all the old places steeped in memories; some changed, some not. Two piano chords gently reel as the vocals, horns and strings sweep around you like a breeze tugging at your heart, singing for Eau Claire, WI.
Lead single ‘Calgary’ wraps around you like a warm blanket in the midst of winter, helped by the warmth of being around the ones you love. Beginning with warm synths and cumulatively growing layer upon layer of lush instrumentation, all the while centring upon Justin’s arresting falsetto and revealing the emotional core of Bon Iver. ‘Lisbon, OH’ is a brief and relaxing shoegazey instrumental that sees the ice around ‘Calgary’ thaw and flows into the spring awakening of album closer ‘Beth/Rest’. Justin really sticks his neck out on the final track artistically speaking since the heady 80’s flecked synths would not seem out of place in Top Gun. I’ll admit that it threw me, but after my initial bile simmered down a Peter Gabriel inspired love ballad unfolded which sees a yearning Justin stretching for the cosmos. It may be a little melodramatic, but ultimately love is and it is handled majestically here.
In terms of second album syndrome, there is always going to be a Catch 22 trade off. Do you consolidate your base and risk criticism for repeating yourself, or do you venture into unknown territory at the risk of alienating your followers? The answer I believe, as evidenced in this album, lies somewhere in the middle but leaning more towards pastures new. For sure, this album may estrange some fans who favoured the stark compositions of Justin’s wood cabin in North-Western Wisconsin. However, those who will continue to listen will be rewarded with the blooming of an artist who quite simply creates music unlike anybody else, transcendent music that just washes right through you. And if you scratch past the surface and listen carefully, you will hear that Wisconsin is very much still where Justin’s heart resides.
‘Bon Iver’ is available in record stores now. Bon Iver embark on an UK tour in October.
While you’re here why not check out ‘Bon Iver’ album artist Gregory Euclide’s website?
EDIT: Hear a stripped down piano rendition of ‘Beth/Rest’ here and see what you think