Bon Iver’s acclaimed debut album, For Emma Forever Ago, as featured onumpteen “best of” 2008 lists, was famously written, performed and recordedin a secluded wood cabin in the hills of Wisconsin, to which Justin Vernonhad retreated to lick wounds and recuperate following his break-up with theeponymous Emma. Blood Bank is a four-track EP that has been released fairlyquickly on the album’s heels. It sees Vernon moving things on a touch,artistically, while still retaining much of what made his debut such adelight to so many.
The title track, and most obvious lead single, tells one of those talesthat is actually, counter-intuitively, lent a sense of realism by itsslightly unlikely nature. A couple meet and get together while waiting todonate at a blood bank. There’s snow on the ground, they warm each othershands in the car, while a mysterious “secret that you know / that you don’tknow how to tell” (…) “fucks with your honour / and it teases your head”.It takes a skilled and proficient lyricist to rhyme “the present” with”crescent”, as Vernon does here, in such an unforced and natural way.
The two middle tracks – Beach Baby, and the curiously punctuated Babys -are less engaging. On Beach Baby the vocal is pitched higher, and thelyrics are less audible as a result, which leaves the listener with less tohook on to. Overall it feels a little amorphous, a little melancholy andtoo short to really get going, although the steel guitar breaktowards the end is worth hearing.
Babies uses repetition to draw out what feels more like asketch of a potential song than a song itself. First of all two pianochords are repeated over again, then the vocal croons “Summer comes / tomultiply / to multiply” several times. A short verse is sandwiched in themiddle, and then the piano + vocal repetitions are, err, repeated again,only this time slightly more frenetically.
The best, however, has been saved for last. On Woods there is once againa phrase that is repeated again and again, but this time it worksbrilliantly. The lines “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’mbuilding a still / To slow down the time” are sung, and put through a rangeof vocal effects, so that they progress from a kind of stark austerity tosomething more and more elaborate – almost baroque – as the trackprogresses.
As an evocation of cabin-fever this is strange, sombre andtouching and the vocal – sometimes a wail, sometimes a croon, sometimessounding very human yet at other times impersonal and electronic – builds tocreate a thing of cumulative beauty. The ending is abrupt, and theimpression left is considerable.