Lovers of Iron and Wine, Calexico, and Bonnie Prince Billy swooned over Bon Iver’s beautifully intimate last record: For Emma, Forever Ago. Tales of Justin Vernon’s luscious songs being composed during a three month hiatus in a log cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin are now the stuff of folk legend. In light of such mythos, Bon Iver’s self-titled eponymous offering has been much anticipated. What may be to the dismay or delight of some fans, the record takes a very different slant with an embellished sound whose layered production appears to be straining for new life away from its lonesome predecessor.
As opposed to the secluded log cabin, this second album was recorded in Vernon’s new studio (a former veterinary practice in Wisconsin three miles from where he grew up). Indeed, sense of place seems an integral ingredient with this album, with all the track titles seeming to be love letters to locations both real and fictional. As a consequence, one is struck by a collection of songs which relays a man upping sticks to move out into the wider world; both physically and sonically.
Perth introduces the new record with syrup trickling guitar which accompanies Vernon’s gradually emerging falsetto timbre. Noticeably, Vernon’s voice is multi-tracked and we bear witness to added instrumentation which suggests that this album will be more of a group affair compared to his previous solitary project. Indeed, it seems his recent collaborations with Kanye West and Gayngs have rubbed off somewhat. As heard on Minnesota, WI, Vernon’s voice cajoles with a roll call of pedal-steel/nylon guitar, saxophone, flat-picked banjo and glossy keys to great effect. Next track Holocene is a real highlight: a subtle, meditative leaving song which aids a pained highway exit from a town or love with plaintive caress. Whereas the waltzing Michicant elucidates Vernon’s gift for abstract poetic wordplay as expressed in such lines as, ‘honey in the hale could fill the pales of loving less with vain’. The majestic Hinnow, TX, is carried by a phasing backtrack which eases nicely into Wash, whose tinkling piano and tender strings finely orchestrate an atmosphere of fragility. Calgary is a beautiful tale of captivation and divine union between lovers which states ‘I was only for your very space’ and Lisbon haunts with e-bow aplomb adding texture to this already finely woven gossamer.
The production on this record, with its sometimes curious tilt to 80s soft-rock, has seen critical opinion divided. This is no more shown than on the final track Beth/Rest which, complete with earnest keyboard, can be heard as a Peter Cetera tribute fit for any cheesy ‘against all odds’ martial arts movie. What is without doubt however is that Bon Iver is certainly at its best when restrained and thoughtful. Cognizance of the old addage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ would perhaps have benefited the album further by allowing the songs to remain as stripped down as For Emma, Forever Ago. Then again a For Emma Pt 2 would have been a conservative and pointless affair. Instead, despite Vernon’s retort on Holocene ‘I was not magnificent’, we have a neatly crafted 40 minutes of stunning poignancy which can only serve to bring Bon Iver greater reverence.