Bon Iver‘s acclaimed debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, as featured on umpteen “best of” 2008 lists, was famously written, performed and recorded in a secluded wood cabin in the hills of Wisconsin, to which Justin Vernon had retreated to lick wounds and recuperate following his break-up with the eponymous Emma. Blood Bank is a four-track EP that has been released fairly quickly on the album’s heels. It sees Vernon moving things on a touch, artistically, while still retaining much of what made his debut such a delight to so many.
The title track, and most obvious lead single, tells one of those tales that is actually, counter-intuitively, lent a sense of realism by its slightly unlikely nature. A couple meet and get together while waiting to donate at a blood bank. There’s snow on the ground, they warm each others’ hands in the car, while a mysterious “secret that you know / that you don’t know 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 the lyrics are less audible as a result, which leaves the listener with less to hook on to. Overall it feels a little amorphous, a little melancholy and too short to really get going, although the steel guitar break towards the end is worth hearing.
Babies uses repetition to draw out what feels more like a sketch of a potential song than a song itself. First of all two piano chords are repeated over again, then the vocal croons “Summer comes / to multiply / to multiply” several times. A short verse is sandwiched in the middle, 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 again a phrase that is repeated again and again, but this time it works brilliantly. The lines “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / To slow down the time” are sung, and put through a range of vocal effects, so that they progress from a kind of stark austerity to something more and more elaborate – almost baroque – as the track progresses.
As an evocation of cabin-fever this is strange, sombre and touching and the vocal – sometimes a wail, sometimes a croon, sometimes sounding very human yet at other times impersonal and electronic – builds to create a thing of cumulative beauty. The ending is abrupt, and the impression left is considerable.