Bon Iver’s self-titled second album is shaping up to be one of my definite favorite records of the year. While it’s been a pretty good year for music (I liked the new Radiohead and Panda Bear albums a lot), nothing has quite gripped me like last year’s Avey Tare and Sparklehorse records did. Thankfully, thanks to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, that’s about to change.
Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago relied on Vernon’s extraordinary voice to fill out the empty spaces left by its skeletal instrumentation. On Bon Iver’s self- titled sophomore full-length, Vernon and Co. have crafted a musical backdrop as lush and multilayered as Vernon’s voice. Soft-rock arrangements, synthesizers, a collection of found sounds and field recordings: Few of the things going on in this album seem like a good fit, but as the vocoder and auto-tune-led incantation Woods and his contributions to Kanye West’s most recent album have proved, seemingly horrible ideas can be made brilliant in Vernon’s execution of them.
In many ways, Bon Iver manages to stuff nearly all of Vernon’s post-Emma projects and ideas (Blood Bank’s more whole-band approach, Volcano Choir’s experimental tendencies, Gayngs’ diverse instrumentation) into one cohesive whole. Not to be outdone by this new musical background, Justin Vernon also brings some of his best singing and songwriting thus far. Not content with just sticking with his trademark falsetto, Vernon, much more than before, sings at a lower register, and as a result, manages to sound both human and otherworldly. Like with Emma, this record’s songs build off each other in surprising and cohesive ways. Once it’s been started, it’s hard to turn off.
Over a year ago, when discussing the then-just beginning recording process of this record, Vernon spoke on how he didn’t just want to be known as an acoustic folk singer-songwriter, how he wanted to spread out. The payoff of that is already present: Justin Vernon created one of the previous decade’s greatest albums by providing one man’s distinct take on a hundreds-of-years-old genre. With Bon Iver, that same man, having formed a twelve-piece band, gives his take on a much more recent era: a time where seemingly incompatible ideas and instrumentation gel together thanks to both the power of the studio and the imagination. It’s a very new musical universe to explore, and it’s one Justin Vernon now finds himself shaping.