Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Most are well versed in the back story of Justin Vernon and his musical vehicle Bon Iver. For those who aren’t, it goes like this: A man takes his quite, heartbroken voice to the woods and records an album that the whole world falls in love with. It’s inevitable that Justin Vernon can no longer be that man. After receiving notoriety and the attention of a certain boisterous hip-hop star, Vernon has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. The question that plagues everyone who still hasn’t listened to Bon Iver, Bon Iver is “How has it affected his music?”

From the start, it is evident that he wanted the listener to notice a few things. One is that this was going to be a more atmospheric and orchestral affair than the comparatively raw For Emma, Forever Ago. The more important proclamation is that this album is a reflection of who he currently is both musically and spiritually as evident in the title Bon Iver, Bon Iver – unless the title was simply chosen to make it confusing for writers who want to call it self-titled, which this writer will be doing henceforth.

The gap in between albums and the drastic change in which it was composed tells us that self-titled is product of a band, maybe even a project, but not a folk artist. On For Emma, Vernon was pouring his heart out over simple melodies with lush reverb. It forced the listener to experience the emotions in the lyrics. On self-titled, you have to dig deeper under the ornate arrangements to try and find what he is getting at. The moments when he keeps it simple are also the ones where the production allows a song to swim above the others instead of drown in the ocean of layered instrumentation. This is why “Holocene” becomes the obvious flagship track. The bright, repetitive fingerpicked guitars draw you in like the Bon Iver of past. The song represents the organic songwriting that is largely missing from self-titled. “Michican’t” is another one of these winning moments and is a more personal affair starting with the lines “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age.”

In contrast, much of the album appears the work of collected ideas and experimentation; sometimes coming off as indulgent. People are going to look to the production on this record as if it is something revolutionary but it is something that, more often than not, bands of this stature are employing. For example, Fleet Foxes also beefed up production and instrumentation for “Helplessness Blues”. The biggest difference is that they avoided the indulgencies of Bon Iver’s record and presented a more natural, personal approach. “Hinnon, TX” and “Wash” seem to be full of distractions and low on emotion. Similarly, the first single “Calgary” has a warm sound but is surprisingly forgettable.

Sometimes the patchwork songwriting process creates a more interesting and engaging listening experience than others. “Minnesota, WI” is a great example. It starts with a delicate guitar lick that sounds like it is about the collapse on itself before everything clicks into place. The structure also successfully utilizes horns comparable to what Destroyer had done earlier this year. The fuzzy crunch of the bass adds lovely dichotomy and shows how these varied elements can converge for a captivating listen. The track that has critics completely divided is “Best/Reth”. Although undeniable cheesy, I can appreciate Vernon’s desire to let his Phil Collins influence run free.

Most critics are going to say that Vernon transcended expectations and matured. They will point to the opposition and say that it would have been easy for him to write For Emma Part 2. However, I don’t think it would have. Folk artists are hard to come by these days and they always morph into something else. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want him to keep the songwriting simple and write For Emma Part 2. The problem is that he isn’t in the place to do so and I don’t think it would have been as easy as it appears for critics. He did something special with that album which very few songwriters have done and then he moved on. It simply comes down to the ultimate critic’s dilemma: do we compare the new record to their previous work or do we look at it in a completely new light? There is nothing to write off here. It’s rare that an artist releases an album of this caliber and we should take into account that it is a more collaborative effort. It’s a solid album but it will never be as moving as For Emma. In years to come when people look at their Bon Iver records, I have a strong suspicion of which one they will be grabbing first.

3.5 / 5.0

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