Justin Vernon’s band is named Bon Iver, and so is the title of their second LP. This band, who has personified themselves with what to us sounds like a man’s name – but in actuality is a phrase meaning “good winter,” have given us an album that has immediately garnered respect and praise from around the industry, country, and world. It’s interesting also, because of the nature of their perpetually subdued, non-danceable, minimalist-introspective sound. Does this signal a change in the contemporary music consciousness when Bon Iver (and others with a similar musical approach such as The Antlers, James Blake or The Radio Dept) can become widely loved by the same young ones who usually love to dance the night away? Or is this just a testament to the talent level behind their musical creations?
While the astute answer is probably a little bit of both, Bon Iver, with their second self-titled release have given us something that would turn heads in any decade. While ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, their first album, was also rightfully admired, it relied more on traditional acoustic guitar combined with falsetto voiced singer-songwriter methods. Drums were used in the more customary method of establishing sonic foundations, while other instruments would weave in and out and be the dynamic influence upon the texture and movement of the songs. The vocals were beautiful, but usually weren’t effected (at least not heavily), and there was much more of background vocals that would add a “non-singular voice” perception while listening.
There was nothing wrong in that first album’s approach, in fact the outcome was gorgeous, hence the attention from such artists as St. Vincent and Kanye West. But in ‘Bon Iver’ we find ourselves with the same emotional agenda, yet presented in a very progressive, unorthodox and surreal way. The result is a prepossessing and bewitching album, which carries substantial weight, yet encourages the mind to wander and float away as one listens.
For this album the band seems to have decided to give each sound and instrument it’s own space and place. We find ourselves with a litany of small builds and releases, but not so much from instrumental change over static percussion. Instead each instrument is usually playing a repeating riff, chord change, or emotional texture – and then those instruments are brought in and out as the song progresses. There are no solos or dynamic instrumentation. The voice of Justin Vernon is the unapologetic center of this album, it is what lead’s the listener along on the sentimental path and at times sets the time and pace of the song just as much as anything else. Drums or traditional percussion are not used often, only on a couple tracks, and instead usually move in and out so as to add emphasis when needed. But things are planned so well, and Justin’s voice is so alluring, that one really doesn’t find themselves noticing the lack of percussion – let alone caring about it.
Michicant is a wondrous song which showcases how powerful, and central, Justin’s voice (and the effects they put on them) is to the band’s overall sound. Through close chorusing (having a singer sing over his own voice exactly in time), which is then split in the stereo field (meaning the L and R speakers have a different vocal recording playing), they create for a truly mesmerizing sound which needs little more than the repeating acoustic riff and floating sax lines to enchant the listener. This vocal effect is used throughout the album, at times auto-tuned, at times EQ’ed deeper or lighter, but always there are vocals leading your ears which sounds like many voices, and a singular, at the same time.
Holocene is another song in which they hit the nail on the head. Here again we find an acoustic riff keeping the time, with the help of an occasional “digital clap”, while the bass adds sublime emotional reinforcement. The song might offer the best example of the simple grandeur that can be created by chorusing and splitting both the guitar and vocals in the stereo field (just as Elliot Smith used to do).
Even on numbers such as Minnesota, WI, in which you can’t really discern what is being said, the vocals are still magnificently hallucinatory while also somehow being waxy smooth and on key. On this song they also let things get a little more complicated than on other numbers. There is a jazzy and floating sax, and gritty bass lines, which are juxtaposed with consistent banjo picking. One can also witness their ability to alter the change of pace and emotion through the addition and loss of certain instruments, not through those said instruments actually altering their own pace. It’s a subtly different way of allowing a song to change, but also almost mutinous considering the genre this band is in. But there is lies one of the reasons this band is making such a splash with this album.
To be sure, not everything on this album is a home run, but there also isn’t a single strike out. Best / Rest came off a bit too much like a 1980’s John Hughes movie score for this author, as well as employing a less intriguing echo-reliant vocal effect. The track Hinnom, TX, compared to the others, is a little unfocused and just slightly dull, which also might have something to do with the lyrics, which are both too deep at points and too falsetto at others. It just goes to show how central the alluring nature of the vocals is to the sound of Bon Iver. Nonetheless, these aren’t songs you would skip while listening to, and many people will probably love them, so that must be kept in mind.
About the recording of this album Justin said that he “brought in a lot of people to change my voice — not my singing voice, but my role as the author of this band, this project.” The vocal effects on this album have created for the most alluring, powerfully central, male vocals heard on any album in some time. That is saying something. Justin also described the music of this album, compared to the first, as a “ambitious musical departure.” Well, that a departure has taken place is quite obvious. Small changes to the musical approach have made for substantially novel consequences to the sound of the album as a whole. That, coupled with the aforementioned vocal charm, have created for a sincerely distinct LP which is easily one of the year’s best. Thank’s for the “departure” Bon Iver, we are all glad to be along for this ride.
By Sean Brna