May 25, 2011Like Radiohead and Panda Bear before Bon Iver this year, it's not a problem that Vernon hasn't created music in the same style of the last successful album: the problem is that he isn't able to make that creative jump to a new aesthetic, or direction, successfully at all.
Awards & Rankings
Universal acclaim- based on 301 Ratings
Jun 21, 2011Occasionally, an album comes along and grows into the soundtrack of a specific time and place. Summer, autumn, winter or spring. A particularOccasionally, an album comes along and grows into the soundtrack of a specific time and place. Summer, autumn, winter or spring. A particular road trip, adventure or vacation. Love, hate, happiness or sadness. They become the touchstone triggers of our nostalgia, leading our memories down the paths of our past and present. Those albums we could consider "great."
But what do you classify something better than that? For that you'll have to ask Justin Vernon. Because Bon Iver's long-awaited sophomore album isn't just 10 songs with atmosphere, it's a vacation in the stratosphere. It's not just a step forward, but a mad dash on the back of a Scud missile. This album isn't just good, it's great. And it's as close to perfection as you can get before being burned.
It's been a busy and fruitful three years for Vernon. He struck critical gold with 2008's "For Emma, Forever Ago," a sparse and haunting LP recorded in a freezing backwoods cabin following a breakup with someone presumably named Emma. The album's romantic backstory, coupled with its innovative minimalism, made it incredibly popular throughout indie circles, eventually garnering low spots on many "best of the 2000s" lists.
If "Emma" was the bitter cold of a blizzard, follow-up EP "Blood Bank" captured the warmth of a cabin fire. In many ways "Blood Bank" was an artistic advancement. Using quicker, shorter steps, it covered much of the same ground - without excess baggage. Then Vernon spent three weeks with Kanye West working on 10 songs that would go toward West's magnum opus, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." Bon Iver's "Woods" would even be the main sample for that album's epic closer, "Lost in the World."
Each song on "Bon Iver" crafts an ambient atmosphere both individualistic and homogeneous to the album's greater arc. Footprints of "Blood Bank" and "Emma" can be found here on "Michicant" and "Hinnom, TX." But "Bon Iver" comes with a noticeable influence from the time Vernon spent collaborating with Kanye.
The minimal sparseness that endeared critics to "Emma" is now replaced with synths, drum rolls, guitars and horns. Songs like "Perth" and "Towers" are beautifully convoluted in their arrangement. Yet as the instrumentation is piled on, it never becomes overwhelming. There is a Spector-esque wall of sound on "Bon Iver," but it is held in check by tasteful moderation.
Lead single "Calgary" is the album's pre-eminent exposition of electric guitars and drums. Another example of Vernon's vocal talent, it's the most fitting homage to the western Canadian province since Gordon Lightfoot's "Alberta Bound."
And then there's "Beth/Rest," the album's most enjoyable anomaly. A sprawling masterpiece overwhelmingly influenced by "The Way It Is"-era Bruce Hornsby, "Beth/Rest" is the album's crescendo. The last hurrah of the journey started on "Perth" and finished 40 all-too-quick minutes later.
"Beth/Rest" goes beyond the album to symbolize Vernon himself. For many of his fans, channeling Bruce Hornsby seems an ironic gesture - a bow to the subset of indie culture that bastardizes nostalgia they never experienced with a sarcasm that degrades its intrinsic value. But there is nothing ironic about Bon Iver or Justin Vernon. From "Mandolin Rain"-inspired songs to performing Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" on prime time television, Vernon has proven himself the antithesis of an ironist. He might be the darling of indie culture, but he's not wearing his nostalgia because it's funny.
In an era dictated by the amount of glitter and mascara on a performer's face, or their ability to push envelopes toward commercial dividends, "Bon Iver" is not an album that 2011 deserves. But it's certainly one that our culture of reboots and copycats needs. It's not just a great album. It's an album that defines the idea of music's potential, and highlights that potential's limitlessness. It shows us what a generation weened on the culture of yore can still achieve on its own accord.
"Bon Iver" splits the difference between restraint and excess, and in the process finds a healthy ambition often lacking in so many sophomore albums. It takes what was and uses it to move toward what could be. It is the musical version of what James Earl Jones meant in "Field of Dreams" when he said baseball "reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again." In the land of Madonna copycats and misplaced sax solos, there is finally an album giving us hope that the heart of musical originality beats on.… Full Review »
Jun 21, 2011My bottom line: I can't back Vernon's Kenny G moment. And Minnesota - WI is the only really tasty track on the disc.
Two things that areMy bottom line: I can't back Vernon's Kenny G moment. And Minnesota - WI is the only really tasty track on the disc.
Two things that are similar between this and Emma (which is my album of 2008) - There are no crazy acrobatic melodies, no avant-garde chords, it's all kept pretty nice and simple. The difference between them is that Emma sort of floats above your head like a sepia-tone dream, while Bon Iver sinks into an icy lake of crystalline-timbre instrumentation. For me, Bon Iver's tasty, tangible creativity couldn't keep up with his inevitable sonic shift.
Most of those critics have no idea what they're talking about, chasing some x-factor around the grooves in order to back the guy that made us cry with Emma.
I love Minnesota - WI. It's the most invitingly textured track. And it avoids the miserably executed pastel horns. If one thing could turn the crank a little harder, it would be a bit of extra bass when the verse comes back in with the crunchy synth.
Beth/Rest - In a popular music season where 70s/80s throwback grooves seem to be finding all of my favourite artists (mostly to great effect), this one stands alone as the most audacious and the most embarrassingly terrible. Don't try to pin naivete on me - the e. piano is only the cherry on top. A tip, Justin - when your fingers touch a piano, they invoke the most cliched of cliches. The sus releases, in particular, are enough to make me cringe. Horns in the wrong places, pedal steel crying for the wrong reasons...
So, you took a big risk and it didn't work out for me. Better than being a banal fool. I will wait three more years if I have to to get your next record.… Full Review »
Jun 26, 2011It's an album that requires a time and a place. It isn't universal enough to be replayed at any given moment, but when it's right, it's theIt's an album that requires a time and a place. It isn't universal enough to be replayed at any given moment, but when it's right, it's the perfect choice. The self-titled album is more than likely what Justin Vernon wanted to do originally with his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago. He considered those songs demos until they exploded on the internet and on various television shows. There are some strong songs on this album, even if sometimes they feel like they aren't going anywhere. And sometimes they don't.… Full Review »