The first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago, released in 2008, was very much a solo effort by Justin Vernon. He notoriously holed up in an isolated log cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin in the middle of winter and recorded the album that would become an indie phenomenon…garnering comparisons to Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes.
In the intervening years, Vernon has released an E.P., re-connected with some old bandmates, collaborated with Kanye West and, with his brother, built a studio in rural Wisconsin. It’s the new facility, called April Bases Studios, that has had the biggest impact on this new, long-awaited Bon Iver album.
The self-titled album contains ten songs, clocking in at just under 40 minutes in total. All of the song titles refer to places, either real or imagined, such as Perth, Hinnom, TX and Holocene. All of them feature Vernon’s high, highly-processed voice, over an intriguing musical bed comprised of guitars, synths, horns and strings. Justin uses his new studio to the fullest adding all sorts of efx on both the instrument and his voice, often making them unrecognizable.
This can be both thrilling and frustrating.
Thrilling because the soundscapes Vernon and his fellow musicians (this is no solo effort) conjure up will send you off into beautiful and entrancing places. Frustrating because it is almost impossible to make out what Vernon is singing. The lyrics are printed in the CD, but the script used is almost unreadable and so the listener is forced to either concentrate very hard on trying to figure out what is being sung, or to let go and just let the music wash over. I recommend the later.
Even when the lyrics are apparent, they are fairly oblique. Lines like, “You’re In Milwaukee off your feet” and “Claire, I was too sore for sight” come bubbling to the surface, but who knows exactly what he’s trying to say. The most direct lyric comes in Calgary…an intimate observation of a lover.
Musically, Vernon lets us know right away that things have changed since the spare voice and acoustic guitar of For Emma. Perth, the opening track begins with a mellow, strumming guitar, but then the strings and a military-style snare drum comes in, followed by a full band, crashing percussion, layers of vocals and a horn section. Elsewhere, session wiz Greg Leisz plays some tasty pedal steel, a banjo drives through the heart of Minnesota, WI and all manner of saxes, trumpets, synths and guitars are used throughout the record.
There has been some discussion about Beth/Rest, the album’s final track. Vernon has adopted a rather cheesy electric guitar and synth sound that many associate with the late 1980s. Some listeners love it, some hate it. But in the context of the songs the come before it, it seems to make perfect sense.
And so it goes…another highly anticipated indie release. This one definitely builds upon its predecessor without repeating it. It’s not an easy album to take in all at once, but will most likely reveal itself over time and repeated listens.
Click here to listen to Holocene from Bon Iver: