Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver Album Review
August 16th, 2011 • Album Review
Anyone who knows and loves Bon Iver can tell the tale of front-man Justin Vernon’s debut recording experience. After the breakup of his former band, the end of a relationship, and a mononucleosis infection, Vernon headed to his father’s cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, seeking solitude.
What emerged from this ultimately cathartic experience was the dark, sparse, and hauntingly beautiful album For Emma, Forever Ago. Everything about the album just worked; listeners could hear Vernon’s isolation and identify with his emotional longings.
Four years, an EP, and several collaborations later, Vernon released Bon Iver’s (semi) eponymous sophomore album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Just taking a quick listen to his collaborations (an eclectic combination of ambient, experimental, indie rock, and hip hop), and you know this album will be different.
Honestly, with all the praise the debut album received, I’m surprised Bon Iver didn’t get more hate. However, upon listening and relistening, you realize that this sophomore album is still brilliant. And while it’s different, it’s not that different.
Despite the large variety of new sounds present – dirtier and grungier guitars, plenty more horns and woodwinds, 80s style balled synths(on more than one track mind you), random blips and bleeps, metallic percussion, saxophone – there are still more than a few songs that could have been recorded on For Emma and no one would be the wiser.
The first track, “Perth,” serves as a prime analogy to the transition of sound Vernon has taken in Bon Iver. It starts with a few seconds of a breeze blowing and distant clanking (perhaps dinner plates inside a home or rustic wind chimes). Then a soft guitar progression with only a hint of grit on the peaks of the pattern enters and fades. Then a church cathedral vocal harmony joins a military snare pattern under Vernon’s opening verse, finally giving way to the chorus which includes the initial soft guitar progression along with a standard drumset backbeat.
It’s not what you would expend from Bon Iver, but it’s also pleasantly familiar. They definitely sound more like a rock band at certain moments while in other moments I feel I am back in Vernon’s Wisconsin cabin.
If there is one thing consistent between both albums, it is the excellent songwriting and attention to detail. There was a lot of ambience you could pick up from the sparse arrangements in For Emma. You can only imagine the level of detail in this lush second effort. Every close listen draws another interesting detail I hadn’t heard before. Sometimes I have to stop listening and ask myself, “What was that exactly?”
Of all the various sounds present in Bon Iver, I’ve find the most strange and uncharacteristic of that familiar Bon Iver sound to be the strange, sparkling 80s synth tones and pads that occur on “Minnesota, WI,” “Calgary,” and “Beth/Rest.” It almost comes as a little out-of-place or even gimmicky, like a purposefully unexpected turn in an otherwise cohesive plot.
Of course, there are other strange, eclectic moments within the album (the classic rock/country guitar mesh at the end of “Beth/Rest” and the blips and bleeps in “Lisbon, OH”) to reassure the listener that this album, as best I can tell, is a breakout album. Debunking any previous assumptions that Bon Iver has a particular sound or genre.
While I do find the mesh of disparate styles to be interesting, it can also be a bit disconcerting or even annoying for those looking for a cohesive sound. You can’t deny the brilliance of Bon Iver, Bon Iver although I do hope their next effort has a more focused aesthetic and sound.
Mariana Ashley is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to mariana.ashley031 @gmail.com.