ruminates on forthcoming records we're excited about – penned before their release date and whilst still drunk with the confusing hot flush of first impressions.
From spending three months alone in a Wisconsin cabin to sharing a stage (and much of an album) with Kanye West, Justin Vernon has truly ascended to some kind of indie statesman territory. Vernon’s (initially) self-released 2007 debut LP, For Emma, Forever Ago
, rose to prominence through a genuine groundswell of word of mouth; so affecting was this near-mythical album from some "heartbroken loner in a log cabin" that the ensuing international acclaim sent the US singer – along with the other quickly-assembled members of his indie-folk outfit Bon Iver – on a journey that would have them traipsing the globe to universal hyperbole. So how does one follow up a debut so noticed by the world?
Not all that smoothly, it would seem. “Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,” Vernon confessed to Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I couldn’t do it anymore with a guitar. It wasn’t happening.” His persistence and dedication has paid off. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
is a comparatively deeper, more intricate – perhaps less-affecting though more musically complex – follow-up to his sleepy, blockbuster debut.
Once again, there’s a concept tying everything together; though it’s not quite as cathartic – or lucid – as For Emma, Forever Ago
's purported rumination on rural/emotional desolation. Here, each song on Bon Iver, Bon Iver
is christened after a different city around the world. Vernon never explicitly references these places however, so it’s impossible to discern their influence. But regardless of the hazy subject matter, Vernon proves capable of once again animating his unnervingly unique longing.
‘Perth’ (which apparently grew out of a rejuvenating experience Vernon had on our very own West Coast) sounds precisely as you might imagine the opening track on an album by an acclaimed singer-songwriter of bookish mien to: a delicate guitar figure spinning artful, distant thickets of finger-picking before dashing off big, open chords over a marching drum beat. The layered voice remains, but the acoustic isolation has been replaced with (or at least married to) synth drones, hints of computer-tampering (which his debut did so well to conceal, something Vernon touched on when TheVine interviewed him in 2008) and actual guitar licks.
Second track ‘Minnesota, WI’ boasts graceful slide notes before moody electronics, deep bass, distorted saxophone (yes, there's some "funk") and drums burst like geysers around his inimitable falsetto. Oozing wounded romanticism, he croons “Never gonna break / Not for a part in any gamut of the dark”: Although it doesn’t exactly confound memories of Vernon as the orchestral-folk pin-up, ‘Minnesota, WI’ does serve as a particular introduction to Bon Iver’s new(ish) direction. He’s still planting his emotion through the seeds of neo-Appalachian (post-pop?) folk; but the difference here lies with his willingness to experiment with expansive, un-folk structures. Songs sprout elaborate orchestrations and complex counterpoint textures – many of which no longer rely on the guitar (some eschew it all together), instead favouring lone piano notes, synth pads and cut-up effects. The seasick, discordant ‘Calgary’ and glitchy, instrumental tune ‘Lisbon, OH’ confirm this new approach; creations that flaunt the noise of electronic drums and swooping, snorting analog synthesizers, sending Vernon's famed National Steel guitar to the back of the room – if not out the door.
Despite still managing to successfully shoehorn the Bon Iver-sound into this new realm, the record's not an unqualified success; occasionally his flourishes feel heavy-handed, and his pursuit of larger-than-life arrangements can steamroller the lyrical subtleties. For the most part, though, for what is essentially an album of experimental "folktronica" – by an artist who has essentially mothballed the instrument that made his name – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
isn’t nearly as hard work for the listener as it sounds.
Vernon may have largely abandoned the tool that made him, but he retains his celebrated way with melody. However ‘out-there’ the music gets, however isolated the lyrics become, there’s still hooks that goes some way towards sugaring the pill. One particularly gorgeous example threads itself through '80s-tinged closer ‘Beth/Rest’, transforming it from a song one might endure (or at best admire), into something genuinely remarkable. Considering the – well – "cheese" on display here, the kind of things usually reserved for his tongue-in-cheek side-project Gayngs – dated piano pad sounds, vocoder, sax (!) and soaring Top Gun-esque, O-face guitar licks – the great success of 'Beth/Rest' lies in Vernon's ability to reclaim his so-well-loved music, taking it here to a genuinely radical, divisive place.
It's exactly what you hope for from your favorite artists in their best moments – evolution, difficulty and, especially, something new. The link between the recluse and the rapper is revealed.
Words by Jennifer Peterson-Ward (with Marcus). More at thevine.com.au