Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bon Iver’s Latest Gem

Note: Justin Vernon is the singer in the band called Bon Iver. Bon Iver's first album was called For Emma, Forever Ago, and their 2nd album was self-titled, aka "Bon Iver."

I have spent a long time considering how to write this review; so long in fact that when I finally clicked on the publish button, more than two months had elapsed since the album’s release date. In addition to the more practical reason that college applications have me busier than I have ever been in my life, it has taken me so incredibly long to blog about this album because the album took me so long to comprehend. Finally, though, after about 15 listens, I have come to appreciate Bon Iver for what it is: The best record of 2011.

Back from his self-exile in a log cabin somewhere in Wisconsin, Justin Vernon was facing one of the hardest acts in all of music: Following up a great, albeit expectation-free first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, with a sophomore album that faced monumental expectations. Vernon had to take the qualities of For Emma which had made him into a star---the airy stupor-ed, falsetto yowl, the indistinguishable lyrics that combined masterfully with his expansive melodies--- and alter it enough to provide an eager audience with something new.

Vernon proved he was more than up to the task in Bon Iver, his band’s second album. Bon Iver keeps the main aspects that led fans to love Vernon’s music; his falsetto whimpering is as beautiful as ever, it is, once again, damn hard to find out just what he is saying, and his melodies are still expansive and deep and wonderful. But the additions are superb: Whereas For Emma was simple, acoustic solitude, wintry and woodsy and fresh from heartbreak, an inward look at a wounded heart in an emotional valley, Bon Iver is a triumph, a euphoric, grander album. Its wisp of smoke evaporates and returns as a powerful downpour, it surges and recedes, whereas For Emma only receded. Vernon clearly needed help to keep up with the high expectations, and he got it. On tour, Vernon is accompanied by an eight-piece band and a collection of tumbling drums, magnificent synthesizers, horns, and a haunting piano. Thanks to the accompaniment, the album doesn’t look inward, but swells outward, soaring to new heights. Bon Iver’s represents Vernon’s transition from vulnerability to confidence.

But enough of my babbling, onto the album!

Bon Iver opens with Perth, and after a quiet beginning, light but persistent drumming brings us to a battlefield. The battle bursts forward, showing us in the very first track that this album was meant to be played from rooftops.

The great opening track is followed by Minnesota which also crescendos brilliantly. Vernon’s “Never Gonna Break, Never Gonna Break” is one of the few easily distinguishable lyrics from the album, and represents the moving on from For Emma’s fragile vulnerability. Minnesota has the powerful album protruding and expanding outward, swirling with far-improved depth.

Just as we begin to feel slightly nostalgic, lamenting Vernon’s moving on from For Emma, we get it back, in a wholly glorious way. Holocene, a track that would have fit magnificently on Vernon’s previous album shimmers, soothes, and reminisces. As the longest track of the album, it is also the best. Holocene manages to bring us back to the first time we first listened to Vernon, and once more reminds us of how masterfully he is able to place an anchor on his audience’s hearts and a lump in its throats.

“And at once I knew I was not magnificent/High above the jagged isle/Jagged vacance thick with ice/I could see for miles, miles, miles”

Holocene, too, brings Vernon back to his own psyche after his release of For Emma, when he saw his future, his career, span “for miles, miles, miles.” We join him for the ride, accompanying him back to that moment, but with its future being our present. Stronger, more confident, Holocene reaches a pinnacle before exploding, then recedes faintly, into the past, our first memory of Vernon, and the simple beauty that emerged from his Wisconsin log cabin in the dead of winter. It truly is one of the most phenomenal songs I have ever heard.

Bon Iver’s middle is equally as strong as its beginning, with great tracks “Michicant, Wash., and Calgary. In fact, the only song on the album that I don’t particularly care for is its final track, Beth/Rest. It comes completely out of the woods, (excuse my pun) brandishing bizarre organs and electric guitar. Much of the emotional depth seems to have been lost in Beth/Rest, a self-proclaimed letter of admiration for Vernon’s music hero. And yet, the very fact that he is pushing the envelope gains him my respect. And it is the confidence, the unabashed belief in his music that makes the album so brilliant. So even if I’m not infatuated with the closing track, or the similarly electronic Hinnom, TX, I’m still left with nine brilliant tracks out of 11.

My expectations for Bon Iver were through the roof and Vernon somehow managed to exceed them. It kept what made For Emma great and added enough new elements to kick Vernon’s music into a whole new gear. For the amazing product that greeted music lovers everywhere, I hereby crown Bon Iver as the best album of 2011.


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