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Monday, June 20, 2011

Bon Iver: Bon Iver (Release Date: 6-22-2011)

        This One was never going to be easy. For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut album of Bon Iver, is a pretty rough disc to write a follow-up to for a variety of reasons. Since Emma, Bon Iver has shifted from being a One man project belonging to Justin Vernon into a whole band with expanded musical ambitions. Bon Iver's predecessor was also steeped in back history and lore (man alone in a cabin, writing songs with a broken heart, blood-letting with a guitar), the kind of romantic trappings that people don't easily let go of. Finally, Emma is simply an amazing record, One that tugs on heart strings at will, and has deeply endeared itself to many who have listened to it, myself included. Early hints at what direction the expanded line-up might take (Blood Bank EP, Dark Was the Night's Brackett, WI) proved alluring, but there's no denying that a sequel to a work that you really care about is just as frightening as it is exciting.

        What's clear about Bon Iver from the very start is a heightened sense of musical ambition. Where Emma tended to go straight to the heart with each and every song, the band's self-titled effort has a much greater sense of patience to it. Take lead single Calgary for example, which opts out of having any sort of chorus entirely, preferring to follow an elusive melodic path that sees it through the subtle synths of its opening to the electric guitar of its finale, and the symbol taps of its dying breaths. Calgary is an odd choice for a single, its unique structure preventing it from being either the ear-worm or the sing-a-long, but it's an ideal introduction to all that Bon Iver is: Beautiful, restrained, mysterious, emotive, and (suddenly) kind of subtle. The song, like the album as a whole, takes a few listens to warm up to, both because of the feverish devotion that many bear to its predecessor, and because the music is quite a bit more slippery this time around. The first time that I heard Calgary, I was left scratching my head; By now, it's among my favorites from 2011.

        But Calgary isn't even close to all that Bon Iver has to offer, as opener Perth can readily attest to. Though being strummed without a hint of grit, it's worthy of note that the first sound we hear on the album is electric guitar, smooth and thoughtful, soon surrounded by an uncharacteristically militant percussion part. Like Calgary, it's a song that is deeply interested in keeping the listener in the dark as to which direction it's headed, no real chorus ever manifesting, the instrumentation growing louder and more intense until, only half way through the song, Justin Vernon's band does something that Justin Vernon himself couldn't really do alone; They jam, free of their frontman's unique and angelic croon, and they sound great. There's a little taste of the fuzzier side of Post-Rock (Early Explosions in the Sky, Do Make Say Think) going on in the tune, which should sound just as strange as it reads, but it doesn't. Not for a moment.

        Minnesota, WI also spins a puzzling yarn, leaning heavily on the lower half of Vernon's register, almost courting comparisons to TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, One that he will later revisit, in even more pronounces fashion, on Hinnom, TX. For its first half, Minnesota sort of rumbles around behind a simple yet persuasive groove, blossoming out as the song moves forward with the help of a gentle strummed guitar, and some steady steel pedal. The thing rises and falls, giving way to the lullaby of Holocene, a tune that I foresee being a key transition piece for many listeners. While not as musically adventurous as many of its album mates, the tune boasts of the same acoustic guitar/tear-jerking voice pairing that made Emma such a hit, newly fitted with extended focus on percussion, pacing, and dynamics. It's a welcome return of a friend in new clothes, and even if Vernon isn't likely to release another disc in the vein of Emma at least for a good while, its heartening to know that the friend-who-understood-us-when-no-one-else-did will still be there sometime to hold us when emo tears are the only tears that will do.

        Towers is yet another real beauty, its sunny strum proving about twice as warm as the next thing Bon Iver has ever done, the love lyrics suddenly playful instead of devastated. Once again, building a real song from the ground up seems to be a focus here, eventually incorporating a surprisingly expansive brass section, only to completely pull the rug out from under the tune with a simple inclusion of a steady, slowed drum roll. Given the overwhelming accomplishment of the record's first Four songs, it's easy to understand how the next Two tracks, Michicant and the aforementioned Hinnom, TX, can feel a bit underwhelming The former maintains its down-tempo sway without much of the surprise that makes the rest of Bon Iver so exhilarating, the latter never coming to life in the same sense as the rest of the disc. It's not meant to be an insult: They're simply Two good songs that are surrounded by a plethora of great Ones, a fact again illuminated when the gorgeous, shimmering Wash. starts playing right after Himmon, TX, the beauty of its lightly played piano, paired with perfectly mournful violins and an ever-expanding sonic world, all but erasing the memory of the previous Two tunes.

        Bon Iver's most divise moment twice over comes at the very end, where the band plays closer Beth/Rest as if Phil Collins had suddenly taken the wheel. Riding a synth-soaked keyboard part that has no trouble bringing to mind soft-focus and leg warmers, the band steers this One straight into cheesy territory with reckless abandon, even throwing in the exact type of Sax solo that you would expect from a song this goofy. When I first heard it, I could hardly listen to it; By now, I'm all the way to kind of liking it. Who knows where another few weeks will get me? Follow-up or not, Bon Iver is an obvious triumph from the start, even if it does take a listen or Two to warm up to. I'm not the biggest fan of the middle section, and can occasionally find the lyrics to be a bit cumbersome and too self-conscious and aggressive coded (Look up the words to any song on the record besides Towers and try to tell me what they mean. Go ahead... just try), but that shouldn't take away from what an accomplishment this thing really is. Bon Iver might fall a bit short of the, 'one-of-the-best-albums-of-the-last-however-many-years,' tag that myself and others slap on Emma without a moment's hesitation, but that doesn't make it anything less than a stellar disc, filled to the brim with great tunes just waiting to be unwrapped, enjoyed, and maybe cried to.

Grade: A-

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