How do you follow a universally adored debut like For Emma, Forever Ago? Give the masses more of what you know they love? Fight the current, tear off in a wild new direction, and dare them all to follow?* Bon Iver’s sophomore, self-titled record tries for a mix of both with mixed results, renewing and expanding For Emma without really improving on it.
Where For Emma, Forever Ago was built out of little more than an acoustic guitar and Justin Vernon’s overdubbed falsetto, sounding as dusty and spare as the secluded winter cabin in which it was famously written and recorded, Bon Iver goes electric and beyond with an ambitious arsenal of synths, drums, autotune, and yes, that is a saxophone a-wailing on the album’s closing track ‘Beth/Rest’. The tinkering is welcome, but it yields an inconsistent batch of songs with some sublime highs and a few baffling lows, in contrast to For Emma all of whose nine tracks were solidly worth knowing by heart.
Four of Bon Iver’s tracks do stand out as excellent. ‘Towers’ is accessible and catchy; ‘Michicant’ is mournful and wintry, Vernon’s bread and butter, playing with a pointillistic 3/4 rhythm. ‘Perth’ and ‘Calgary’ are two of the band’s strongest songs to date, the most emotionally touching pieces on this album and the most likely to wind up on mixtapes and moody playlists. Like the overlooked gems on the Blood Bank EP, their structural essentials would have them sounding just like missing For Emma tracks if stripped down to guitar and vocals, while their arrangements here on Bon Iver make strong use of the band’s new electric toys to add power and weight. As a matter of staying in character while going electric, Sufjan Stevens should be taking notes. Although then you get to a track like the aforementioned ‘Beth/Rest’ and it all seems to come apart in chunks of post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd b-side power ballad, which is really and truly not a phrase I ever expected to type about this particular band.
A key feature of For Emma was Vernon’s curious syllabic approach to lyrics – how he would construct conversations around jumbled vowel sounds, with results that were sometimes obscure but always haunting, seeming to conceal some deep, pathetic poetry behind a self-imposed schizophrenia. Bon Iver takes this technique and runs with it: nonsense syllables are added to the mix, clouding up an already murky lyrical atmosphere. Much of it unfortunately ends up falling on the other side of evocativeness. For Emma could break your heart with a few words, but Bon Iver is more likely to leave you puzzling over the significance of a phrase like “to fide your name/it’s something fane, this is not a place/not yet awake, I’m raised of make.”
Bon Iver is no home run, though it doesn’t strike out either. Maybe it’s more of a bloop single or something. I’m bad at sports metaphors. This is the guy who gave the world ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Blood Bank’, so I’m willing to cut him some slack. Please, though, Mr. Vernon, if you’re reading this: next time, if you’re really in the mood for woodwinds, clarinets are way cooler.
* It’s a trick question. Nobody’s ever happy no matter what you choose.
Tags: Bon Iver