If ever there was a case of a difficult second album, then this is surely it. With For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon produced one of those rare gems – an introspective, deeply personal album that resonated with the individual experiences of numerous others. Following a lengthy wait in which Vernon dabbled in collaborations with Kanye West, Volcano Choir and Gayngs and appeared as part of the cast for Anais Mitchell‘s magnificent Hadestown, here is the successor that must be feared as much as it has been anticipated. Much more cinematic and expansive than its intimate predecessor, making full use of Vernon’s touring band and additional musicians, Bon Iver is a very different beast. This will no doubt upset some, but it should please those willing to follow Vernon’s intriguing developments.
Although Vernon has described Bon Iver as an ‘extension’ of For Emma, it seems more helpful to view it as an expansion of the Blood Bank EP. Perhaps inevitably, the vocodered vocals of The Woods make a reappearance and there is greater emphasis on percussion, rhythm and textural contrasts. Another element familiar from that EP is the occasional detour into minimalism, as on the deceptively simple Wash, with its continuous repeating piano motif. The overall sound is mysterious and graceful, and the sometimes incomprehensible lyrics make it all a little reminiscent of Cocteau Twins. This is, for the most part, a less emotional and more cerebral listening experience, although there are still moments of disarming simplicity where the sublime one man chorus of Vernon’s vocals remain the centre of attention.
Another artist that springs to mind, particularly given the broadening of Vernon’s arrangements, is Sufjan Stevens. Mercifully, Vernon has avoided both the clutter and the indulgence of The Age Of Adz. Instead, the appearance of various horns and wind instruments here are reminiscent of Stevens’ best work on Illinoise (particularly on the second half of Towers). Sometimes this is all handled in a remarkably disciplined and discreet manner. Fans of For Emma may well head first to the remarkable Michicant, on which Vernon sounds as haunted and as heartbreaking as he did on Flume or Re: Stacks, the additional elements making a gloriously effective delayed entry. The opening Perth is a little less subtle, with its military drumming and periodic explosions of sound and colour. It just about survives Vernon’s excessive treatment by being based around a delicate, striking guitar figure.
Those who approach Bon Iver with open minds and open ears will with repeated listens find that Vernon has not strayed too far from his original raison d’etre. Even when he adds in new layers, either with synthesisers or with bolder drums and guitars, Vernon’s music is still more about timbre and effect than it is about the more immediate, temporal pleasures of most rock and pop music. That the sound of his voice plays a crucial role in this may well be his signature feature as a singer-songwriter. There is still a spiritual, meditative quality to much of this music, as on the beautiful introduction to Calgary. There is a pervasive ’80s pop influence here and elsewhere on Bon Iver (Tears For Fears, possibly, or maybe even the dreaded Phil Collins or Vangelis on Beth/Rest) but rarely does this music sound dated or nostalgic. It is certainly never ironic, Vernon remaining rigorously sincere at all times.
Sometimes the bigger canvas of Bon Iver takes Vernon in directions that sound uncharacteristically conventional (the strummed guitars that belatedly come to characterise Calgary, or the bucolic arpeggios of Holocene) but there is always something more personal and distinctive to prevent this from becoming predictable. The same spectral presence and romantic longing is everywhere here, it just comes with a panoramic gaze. This is Vernon leaving the seclusion of the forests and, as many of the track titles suggest, moving through towns, cities and open spaces.