Bon Iver – “Bon Iver” (2011, Jagjaguwar)
Reviewer: Matthew Sanderlin
Justin Vernon, founder and leader of indie-rock team Bon Iver, has never taken the easy route. The man had spearheaded several other independent bands before his success with Bon Iver, each previous group being critically lauded, but sadly unsuccessful commercially. Vernon fell especially hard after the disintegration of his long-time group, DeYarmond Edison, and took the breakup as a sign to seek seclusion in an isolated cabin.
For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s unsuspectingly gorgeous and additionally enduring debut album, took refuge in Vernon’s prior defeats, only to raise them from the dead and bolster them towards new heights with dignity.
Bon Iver, the eponymous second and latest Bon Iver project, is no safe bet either. Where For Emma was uninhibited and raw, Bon Iver is careful and clean. Rusty guitar strings and nearly-primal vocal outbursts are swapped for shimmering guitar strands and meticulous harmonic structures. No safe points here.
It’s not like it would be that difficult to spot the instant contrast on even the album’s opener, “Perth,” but “Holocene” is the clearest example of the “new” Bon Iver sound. The guitar picking is coated in a harp-like essence, engulfing its neighboring sounds with sincerity and serenity. The unorthodox percussion arrives late in the track; dropping subtle hints at first, and then following it with a controlled charge.
Lead single “Calgary” also displays sonic innovation, with its foggy synth padding, stirring guitar slides and methodical drum arrangement. The difference here is that the melody truly shines above even the carefully-constructed soundscape with a gripping and memorable formulation.
And that’s the true trick when it comes to Vernon’s second Bon Iver endeavor. Surely, there are some magnificent melodies aboard the Bon Iver vessel. “Perth” is a truly spectacular anthem, followed by the overwhelmingly gorgeous declaration “Minnesota, WI,” and resolved by the strikingly winsome vintage-tinged finale “Beth/Rest.” But not all are quite as charming.
“Wash.,” a close relative of previously-released tune “Beach,” is not an irredeemable piece, but it is far from immediate with its seemingly unfocused melody and off-putting, simple piano patter. Additionally, “Lisbon, OH” is purely filler material, and “Hinnom, TX” pushes the limit in the “nasally voice” department.
I will admit that repeated listens to Bon Iver are highly encouraged if one is to extract the succulent juices surrounding its coveted core. Still, it’s not wholly accessible, and not generally as immediate as For Emma. If you’re already a fan and can handle a substantial shift in sound, then definitely go for it. Otherwise, I’d listen to the album beforehand to see if you’re up for the “repeated listens in order to crack this coconut” type of ordeal.