The success of For Emma, Forever Ago has always baffled me. The album was released in mid-2007 to minimal acclaim, but, sometime in early 2008, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, was beginning to get namedropped by friends and family that I had never figured knew all that much about music. Perhaps it took the winter of 2008 to be the catalyst for For Emma’s frigid tales of isolation to realize their potential to people, but, by 2008’s end, Bon Iver had become as much of a household name as Vampire Weekend, whose debut was released about six months after Vernon’s.
And then Justin Vernon was on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeah, Bon Iver came out with the Blood Bank EP and Vernon released two side projects under the names Volcano Choir and Gayngs in that time, but what really matters is that the man who had created a mythos of holing himself up in a cabin with a crippling physical/mental ailment to release tortured acoustic tales was singing “Pussy and religion is all I need” alongside some of the most recognizable pop figures of all time in all but a few years. The albums that were released between For Emma and Fantasy gave hints of the deeper breadth to which Vernon could perform, but I would still argue that Vernon’s creative shift between 2007 and 2010 was one of the most radical of all time.
And this radical shift has a subtle effect on Bon Iver’s highly awaited, pseudo-self titled follow-up to For Emma. Vernon has mentioned in interviews that the main thing he took away from working with Kanye was that the man was incredibly willing to take strange, seemingly unworkable sounds and tirelessly mold them into affecting showstoppers. This principle is heard throughout Bon Iver, Bon Iver, particularly on the album’s first and last tracks. “Perth” begins with a strategically caustic guitar line and undulates with snare hits and harmonized falsettos. At first, the track sounds like expected Bon Iver, but, at its midpoint, it slumps sonically, only to be revived with concise cymbal hits before gliding into a breakdown of syncopated double bass drum. Taken out of context, this new movement sounds like some downtempo heavy metal, something that wouldn’t sound out of place on Alcest’s most recent record. However, coupled with Vernon’s immaculate guitar tone, this new presence adds serious emotional heft. The sound carries “Perth” to its end, introducing Bon Iver, Bon Iver with a jarring contradiction that proves to be the album’s best.
Where “Perth” borrows from the hipster-reviled reaches of metal, “Beth/Rest” takes its sound from the maligned cheese of ‘80’s analog schmaltz. It’s a ballad, featuring a keyboard line that’s connotation is nearly impossible to ignore. Nevertheless, Vernon achieves the impossible by reversing entire decades of Bonnie Tyler and Foreigner ballads to give the characteristically synthetic sound an undeniable soul. Vernon understands the style very well and almost seems to taunt the listener as he embellishes the track with reverbed guitar high tones, but it’s still an unbridled success. It too proves itself to be one of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s best songs, because it ruthlessly doubles down on polarizing styles and normalizes them so that you couldn’t imagine them being performed any other way.
The rest of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Promotions are calling it Bon Iver but Vernon himself calls it Bon Iver, Bon Iver) is less divisive. Vernon has characterized his newest as a spring to For Emma’s winter, but the album gives little indication of weather or even temperature. Instead, the season Vernon evokes on Bon Iver, Bon Iver lies within the mind; constantly, the man recalls cryptic moments in his childhood amidst arrangements that have a blue, polished sheen of nostalgia. A bike bell rings throughout “Michicant” as Vernon recalls when “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age.” “Halocene” delves into tender specifics that I’m sure only Vernon truly understands. A line like “3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway / Was where we learned to celebrate,” has little relevance to me, but Vernon’s vulnerable delivery aside the naked acoustic guitar creates a recognizable mood that I can easily ascribe my own meaning to. In this way, it often feels as if Vernon is translating his own memories to yours.
“Calgary” even begins as if from the middle of a thought. Vernon’s verse enters a line late, causing the track to stumble slightly before its familiar vocal progression gets into a groove. As the last track before the controversial tones of “Beth/Rest”, the song feels as if it is wrestling itself from a dream. Its bridge bounces with distorted guitar and distant vocals, as if to signal reality intruding upon Vernon’s fantasies that flew with such abandon up to that point. What is incredible is that you feel intruded upon as well, drawing attention to how effectively Bon Iver, Bon Iver introduces you to the recesses of Vernon’s psyche. With repeated listens, “Beth/Rest” even wears less and less to make the entire album feel like an immense, uninterrupted dream sequence.
But, yeah. Naked. That’s an excellent way to describe the appeal of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Vernon’s voice is similar to TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, especially in the few times he lowers his voice. It’s delicate and rarely unadorned, ornate harmonies surrounding it constantly as to sound synthetic at times. New instruments such as a horn section and the stylings of bass saxophonist Colin Stetson can be heard throughout the album, but these developments never distract Bon Iver, Bon Iver from that central vision of one guy with an acoustic guitar, except maybe now it’s a guy with an acoustic guitar and a Macbook Pro. Thankfully, Kanye hasn’t spoiled an artist that is proving to be one of the most formative of this decade. His versatility has allowed him to take disparate influences and create a product that still feels wholly his, beautifully marred by the travails that are only garnered from an artist that is honest with both himself and his eager (and appreciative) audience.