27 June 2011

Review: Why Is Bon Iver So Good?

Artist: Bon Iver
Album: Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Label: Jagjaguwar
Length: 39m 25s
Release date: 21 June 2011

Even the casual fan knows the mythological story by now: A brokenhearted and band-less Justin Vernon retreats from North Carolina to the family hunting cabin in Wisconsin and emerges with the greatest soul-bearing singer-songwriter indie-folk-record (For Emma, Forever Ago) since, well, EVER.

At least, that's what the stories will lead you to believe.
"[P]eople romanticized a lot of shit," Vernon says. "They think I went up to the cabin and drank maple syrup and shot animals and wrote a record and saved my life. But it wasn't this crazy wildlife situation. I mean, I did hunt deer. A bear did steal my stew. But I had my laptop. There's a phone. There's electricity. My dad had just put in a toilet. Sometimes I would drink four beers and go to bed at 8:00."
- Rolling Stone [23 June 2011]
But the story is just a much a part of the record as the album by itself. There is a sense of wonder in people's voices when they almost rhetorically marvel, "Why is Bon Iver so good?"

For Emma is an absolutely brilliant album and it grew into one of the most celebrated albums in recent memory. This created the unenviable task for Bon Iver: Write a second album and don't fuck it up.

Over three years have gone by since the release of For Emma. Over those three years, Justin Vernon spent some time touring, released an EP, became pen pals with X-Files star Gillian Anderson (Vernon loves The X-Files), spent some time with Kanye West and stayed involved with various side projects including Gayngs. Just the usual. No big deal.

Honestly, with all that time gone by, For Emma seems like, well, forever ago.

For many, For Emma is a near perfect record from start to finish. The beautifully haunting songs have made their way into hearts and minds and have left indelible marks. The uninitiated need to take forty minutes out of their schedule and take a good listen to this album.

The raw quality of the production creates a wonderful sense of open space and dynamics in songs like "Flume," "Skinny Love" and "The Wolves (Act I and II)." Forward motion and pace is found in the quietly pulsing, almost house-like beats on "Lump Sum" and "Blindsided." There's pure magic in the plaintive wail of the haunting horns in "For Emma."

{ Bon Iver - "For Emma" }

The lyrics capture emotions in a way that rarely comes off as the bellyaching or whining of a singer/songwriter who takes himself and his so-called pain too seriously. For Emma doesn't feel like a soul-searching record, it feels like a confessional statement delivered on a plate of gorgeous melodies.

What do you do for an encore?

This is the struggle for any artist whose debut album achieves this level of worship and critical acclaim.

More of the same? Or something wildly different?

Maybe neither. Bon Iver evolved.

If For Emma was a matter-of-fact confessional statement of pent-up emotion, then Bon Iver, Bon Iver is like a prequel. It's a record seems to focus more on reflection and exploration and how we got to For Emma.

The titles of each track are places near and far, real and imagined but the songs aren't odes to their respective locations. In a way, the song titles and corresponding lyrics seem to make the songs more personal. The listener is a bit more on the outside looking in. It's difficult to really capture how each track works with each place but that makes this record open and exciting.

All the hallmarks of Bon Iver are there: warm acoustic guitars, falsetto vocals, the harmonies, the horns.

But the arrangements are more lush and expansive. There are synths, saxophones and electric guitars that punctuate the atmosphere of each track. A pedal steel guitar brings a warm familiarity to the songs. There's unapologetic nods to the 1980s on this record but without the hipster irony.

Phil Collins-style drums drive "Minnesota, WI" and "Calgary," there are ethereal Brian Eno moments in "Michicant" and "Wash." By the time all is said and done, that "Chariots Of Fire" feeling you get in the last track "Beth/Rest" makes sense in the best possible way.

{ Bon Iver - "Minnesota, WI }

Perhaps there isn't the same magic in Bon Iver as there was in For Emma. Maybe this latest record doesn't speak to me in the same way that For Emma did and still does. But that's the way I'd rather have it. I don't want a For Emma, Forever Ago ... Again.

The new Bon Iver record stands on its own as a beautiful album and the appropriate extension and evolution from the first album. You can get lost in it and discover so much. I really can't stop playing this record and that's probably the highest praise I can give it.

So, why is Bon Iver so good?

Is it the mythology of Justin Vernon and Bon Iver? Or is it that he's a regular dude who played football and basketball in high school, likes smoking weed, drinking beer and listening to rap?

The legends are a huge part of the Bon Iver story but each album still stands strong on its own. The inimitable quality is there in the production, the melodies, the words, the honesty.

A big part of art is about how it's delivered. Two brilliant comedians can tell the same joke but only one might be funny. Imagine if Thom Yorke had sang the words "my loneliness is killing me" instead of Britney Spears.

So, really, it's the unapologetic way that Bon Iver conveys this unique honesty that makes For Emma, Forever Ago so entrancing, that makes Bon Iver, Bon Iver so bold, and makes Bon Iver so fucking good.

{ Bon Iver? Or Bon Iver, Bon Iver?

"Name of the record is: "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" it makes sense for press release to call it self titled, and that's not wrong. but #aboveistrue" ~ @blobtower}