The story of Justin Vernon’s first album as Bon Iver is legendary: man’s band breaks up, man breaks up with girlfriend, man gets mono, so man moves into father’s cabin in the Wisconsin woods in the winter to recover physicially and emotionally. There the man writes and records an album’s worth of quiet cerebral folk songs, something he never planned on doing (the recording equipment only being there coincidentally). He decides to shop the songs around as demos but is encouraged to release the album as is. In spite of his initial resistance, he eventually releases it as For Emma, Forever Ago. It becomes a big indie hit, included in many “best of” lists. Kind of makes one envy Vernon, doesn’t it?
Now it’s time for the Difficult Second Album, a task made even more challenging by the breathless worship that first album received. So maybe I don’t envy Vernon after all. How can he succeed in the face of such high expectations?
Simple: by releasing a fantastic second album that moves past his beginnings without abandoning them. By pulling in a group of talented musicians to expand his sound in a way that sounds wholly organic. By wrapping the songs around the themes of place, travel (virtually every song title is a place name) and love.
This album had to sound at least a little bit different. How could it not? Short of trying to repeat the happy accident of the first album, there was no question that he had to move ahead. Woodwinds, strings, horns, keyboards, distorted guitars, pedal steel – all add subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) flavor to Vernon’s voice, which switches between the beloved falsetto of Emma and a deep, almost sexy growl.
But that said, this album isn’t as different as I would have expected when one goes from recording solo in a cabin to recording in a studio with a full band. It still has an intimate feeling, the kind of music you can imagine listening to in a corner in a quiet café, out in the woods, or with headphones in a darkened room. It’s music I might hear in a dream, sometimes quiet, swelling in unexpected ways.
As for the songs, they’re all strong. “Minnesota, WI” is driven by subtle African-inflected drumming and guitar, and captures the chime/drone aspect of much of this music. “Holocene” is a standout, a slow build of a repetitive guitar figure with ethereal vocals and saxes adding subtle flavor underneath.
“Towers” starts like something from an Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt record, chiming electric guitars. “Calgary” is a favorite, a raggedy jam with fuzzy guitar in sharp contrast to Vernon’s bell-clear voice. “Hinnom TX” highlights the deeper register of Vernon’s voice, dropping almost out of hearing over an echoing keyboard bit.
The last song “Beth/Rest” is the most different sounding song on the album (and therefore likely to be most controversial among fans who’d like to hear Emma over again). It’s the highlight of the album in spite of (or maybe because) straying close to something like a late-1980s Steve Winwood song. With great bursts of atmospheric guitar and pedal steel over a keyboard and Vernon’s gorgeous high vocals, it brings the album to a stunning close.