When Justin Vernon made his way out of a log cabin in Wisconsin with the recordings that would make For Emma, Forever Ago under his arm, he could little have thought that his collection of deeply personal, heartfelt songs would get him world recognition and a guest appearance on the latest record by the biggest rap star on the planet. Seems that Vernon is living proof that pouring effort and soul into a record often reaps reward.
Anyone who moved on to his 2009 EP Blood Bank found sudden leaps in the Bon Iver sound – particularly the auto-tune experimentation of “Woods”, and many expected Vernon to throw himself further into futuristic production techniques, moving away from the bare bones basics that made his name. The genius of his new effort is that it marries these things not just effectively, but beautifully throughout this self titled record.
This becomes apparent instantly, as the gorgeous Perth grows from a spine-tingling guitar line into something that manages to be heavy and delicate simultaneously. Military style drums drive the song to a surprisingly heavy climax, as chords crash and pound apocalyptically. It even recalls Explosions In The Sky in its crushing coda.
There is a density to the songs here that his debut didn’t have – as brilliant as the songs on For Emma were, it would be intriguing to see what Vernon would do with them in a studio. This record delivers an idea of that, from the swirling, mesmeric arpeggios of “Holocene” to the laidback strumming of “Towers” with its lush horns augmenting the alt-country feel. Vernon’s lyrics remain abstract and cryptic throughout, littered with arcane terms and references to places, mainly in North America, that influenced Vernon’s writing.
There is experimentation throughout, especially on the echoing electronics of “Hinnom, TX” as Vernon’s deep baritone is answered by his own pained falsetto. “Calgary” relies heavily on icy synths, building into a metronomic peak roughed up by fuzzy guitars. Last of all though, is “Beth/Rest”, which sounds genuinely like a Prince song circa “Purple Rain” – all big, epic drums and synth-heavy layers, shot through with squalls of lead guitar and saxophone. It is a striking, surprising conclusion to the album, and leaves you wanting to leap right back to the start again.
I’m going to throw it out there – Justin Vernon may have just bettered what is already considered a classic debut album. This is a glorious, daring record that deserves to be huge. With the exposure he got from his friend Kanye, it just might be.
Release Date – 21st June 2011