Album Review: Bon Iver
By now, it's safe to say, everyone knows the story: Justin Vernon, a Wisconsin songwriter, recovering from various wounds––the breakup of a relationship, the dissolving of his band, a battle with mononucleosis––retreats to an isolated cabin in the frozen wilderness, where he does away with his usual way of recording and singing, and records a set of spare, hauntingly beautiful folk songs.
When he returns to civilization, Vernon thinks he has a bunch of demos on his hands; everyone who listens to it tells him differently. For Emma, Forever Ago, released under the moniker Bon Iver, becomes a critical and commercial success, and within a couple of years, Vernon has toured the world, racked up half a million Facebook fans, and recorded with new pal Kanye West at his Hawaiian compound.
As far as band-forming mythologies go, Bon Iver's is pretty good. But it also created enormous anticipation for the next record: Would Vernon be able to recreate the magic of the first album without the circumstances that created it? Should he even try?
The Blood Bank ep, released in 2009, didn't give much away. Running through lush indie rock ('Blood Bank') and a cappella vocoder wailing ('Woods'), its four tracks showed Vernon as a restless type who wouldn't likely repeat himself.
And so, almost four years after For Emma, Forever Ago, we have Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Though none were as dramatic as the circumstances that led to For Emma, Vernon evidently had some troubles creating his sophomore lp. 'Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,' he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. 'I couldn't do it anymore with a guitar. It wasn't happening.'
So Vernon retreated into his Wisconsin studio with his band and a bunch of master studio musicians, including saxophonist Colin Stetson (Arcade Fire, Tom Waits) pedal-steel player Greg Leisz (Bill Frissell, Linda Ronstadt) and brass player C.J. Camerieri (Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens). These players, Vernon said, helped him 'change the scene' and get the record finished.
From the outset, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a much different sounding record to its predecessor. For one, the songs, with a few exceptions, lack the easy, irresistible momentum of those on For Emma, Forever Ago. They feel more labored over, more consciously considered and constructed. 'The songs started as a soundscapes, and then came the words and music,' Vernon said recently in a Pitchfork interview of the writing process, adding that each song 'took at least a year to make.'