Bon Iver’s Atmospheric Masterpiece
by Morad Moazami
It seems that in the past few years, the image of secluded musician has best been linked to Justin Vernon; the man who fled to a cabin in the outskirts of Wisconsin, heartbroken and alone, and ended up recording one of the most touching and gorgeous albums of 2008 – and quite possibly the entire decade. A lot has changed since the release of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album. In the past few years, Vernon has contributed to multiple projects, collaborating with Kanye West on his masterful 2010 album, and also helming Gayngs, the ‘80s soft-rock-inspired supergroup that has members ranging from rappers to pop and dance stars. He has also distanced himself from the reclusive-quality many attributed to him through his music, retaining activity on Twitter, making numerous appearances on late-night TV, and never failing to blow the audience away as a special guest in concerts. Now with the release of Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album, the multi-talented Wisconsin-devotee has fully stepped out from the haunting anguish of For Emma, and has instead created a world of his own. Bon Iver uses a wide variety of methods to present listeners with an almost mythical world of Vernon’s imagination with song titles resembling cities that exist and don’t, and lyrics – sometimes consisting of made-up words – that are meant to compliment the song structures without ever overshadowing them.
The album opens with Perth, as a familiar combination of guitar and harmony makes way for the ascending militant drumming that lingers in the background throughout the song. Vernon’s trademark voice and falsetto is instantly recognizable, but the song ushers in what listeners can expect from the rest of the album: a more atmospheric and less restrained setting. As the songs progresses, one can easily perceive a bright sun shining upon the dark and gloomy woods of For Emma, Forever Ago, with each layer of the track coming to full fruition as it reaches an end; horns, guitars, percussions, all coming together in harmony and in celebration. It seems that the band (which has grown quite steadily into an ensemble of very talented musicians) is implying that the worst has passed, the despair has run its course, and that it’s time to escape to somewhere more peaceful, more melodic, and wholly magnificent.
Undiscernibly, Perth flows into Minnesota, WI with such ease that it’s almost impossible to tell the two songs apart at first – although they are downright different from one another. A tuneful strum pattern moves the track along as it swiftly moves between “groovy” and “pleasant”, and then fully flourishes with a blend of both. “Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing
,” Vernon sings; lyrics that are almost impossible to decipher but nonetheless delightful to listen to. Vernon’s voice soars as the minutes grow, and breaks down instantly with a mantra-like hymn of “Never gonna’ break, never gonna’ break” guiding the song to its culmination.
Holocene is one of the many highlights of the album. “Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me,” sings Vernon in requiem. The song is the closest the Wisconsin-native gets to heartbreak in this new album, generating a feeling of nostalgia and calamity all at the same time. Holocene seems to be there to reminds us that no matter how novel the sound, and how far away this whole new mystic world may be, the heartbreak still lingers and haunts; as if it’s something impossible to escape from. “I could see for miles, miles, miles,” he sings with his voice and harmony smoothly leading us away from despair, and on towards Tower.
Stirring and uplifting, and using a wide array of instruments to construct a jubilant atmosphere, Towers certainly lifts the spirits of the entire record. The track reaches its climax with the eruption of richly structured layers and Vernon’s inspired vocal skills as he flawlessly brings his mostly abstruse lyrics (“build your tether rain-out from your fragments…
”) to life.
Michinant takes Vernon’s lyrics into a trance-like state. The music looms and drops with calculated precision, and soft, conversant guitar strums in the background move the song forward. The song in itself represents the simple pattern that Bon Iver follows from start to finish: It ascends; and the more we listen, the more expansive and spacious it gets, giving rise to an escalating sense of comfort.
There is no city named Hinnom, TX, but such a place might as well exist. The band create a wonderfully hospitable and distinctive setting with the loop-like ambience that follows the song to the very end with Vernon uncharacteristically chanting “all this time
with your heart in mind, didn’t you edit in Hinnom?” – ascertaining to the progressive nature of the record as it wanders into a more mood-oriented, synthesized habitat.
A slight, elusive piano plays over Wash. and an arrangement of strings follow, adding to the fragility of the delicate track. The gem of the album, however, is the song that follows; the magnificent first single off Bon Iver: Calgary.
The vocal skills and matchless range of Vernon has never been so clear and lustrous as they are in Calgary. With soothing yet piercing falsetto, the Bon Iver frontman easily drifts in and out of the multidimensional song. As guitars twist and distort, and as his voice is fittingly drowned out by the downright intensity and passion of the track, the falsetto remains irrepressible, and breaks through with a strength and potency that is guaranteed to leave any listener amazed by its sheer energy.
The shortest track on the record, Lisbon, OH is best understood as a lead-in to Beth / Rest, the band’s Gayngs-inspired tribute to ‘80s rock; a tribute to greats like Peter Gabriel, who as a matter of fact, covered Bon Iver’s Flume on his last album, Scratch My Back. It isn’t too difficult to envision Beth as the perfect song to play over the final credits of a John Hughes movie. It is even easier to appreciate it as a song that concludes Bon Iver’s delightful sophomore album on such a lighthearted and tender note.
What Vernon and Co have created on Bon Iver is beyond just a simple record. This is not an album that will reveal all its secrets in one or two docile listens. Bon Iver is a record to be listened to over and over again, as the songs uncover further with each listen. With 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon presented a dim yet hopeful perspective on grief and solitude. Bon Iver steps out of that darkness in full force, and presents a world deserving of recognition and discovery. It asks listeners to walk through the scenes the band has created, and tempts them into using all senses in discovering this new terrain. This wholly different yet equally wonderful album is a testament to the experience of music itself. It simply doesn’t require your ears. It requires your time, your imagination, your passion, and everything else that you’re willing to invest in.
Star Rating: 5/5
Bon Iver is available now on iTunes, Amazon MP3, CD, Vinyl