Coming off a debut as shrouded in its own narrative as For Emma, Forever Ago – heartbroken musician absconds to the Wisconsin wilds to make a brilliant record – Justin Vernon had almost written himself into a corner before he’d even begun. For an album so singular and immediately cherished, it would have almost shamed its memory for the next Bon Iver project to attempt to mimic the conditions in which it was made.
While Blood Bank is partially gleaned from some of those same sessions, the four-song EP shows Vernon having progressed well beyond the scattered plucker that first holed up in his lonely Eau Claire hunting cabin. To some extent, the evolution was unavoidable, as Bon Iver packed an entire year’s worth of tour stops into 2008 for which he was forced to translate his intricate arrangements to a live setting and learn how to stretch 40 minutes worth of material into an hour-long set.
Early shows opening for labelmates Black Mountain saw Bon Iver as a modest four piece, faithfully reproducing For Emma‘s bleak fireside folk song for song – give or take “Re: Stacks,” depending on the mood of the crowd – with little to no embellishment. Toward the last leg of his tour, though, Vernon had developed into an unabashed performer, expanding upon songs like “Blindsided” with blown-speaker, Nels Cline-influenced guitar shredding and carefully chosen covers. To the point, Bon Iver adapted a natural band dynamic that transformed their bedroom artist reserve into an act worthy of a headliner.
Blood Bank‘s title track represents that shift most faithfully, offering a straight-laced structure and a steady electric rhythm guitar, both heretofore unheard of in Bon Iver’s repertoire. Laced with emotionally ambiguous lyrics and concrete metaphors that never quite explain themselves, Vernon’s voice rising from a gruff howl to his signature pinched falsetto, and layers of tonal feedback to provide lift, the song is, simply put, easily accessible. For all the poetic, earthy types prone to over-analysis of such introspective songwriters as Bon Iver, “Blood Bank” is a vulgar counterpoint to For Emma for its Coldplay-isms and obliging, pop rock stance. Though far from a sell-out, it’s a song that looks to inspire, rather than stumbles across it naturally.
“Beach Baby,” on the other hand, mines more familiar territory, chugging along with a scant acoustic strum and Vernon’s stacked whines. But for an ephemeral slide guitar that closes the final minute, it offers a polar opposite to “Blood Bank” that serves as a gentle bridge into the EP’s more complex second half. Crashing in with a clumsy staccato piano over muted, rickety percussion, “Babys” offers a peak behind the curtain at what Bon Iver may very well sound like in the coming year. As natural as anything Vernon has yet to conjure, the song has a real changing-of-the-seasons feel – imagery solidified by the album’s snow-piled cover, topped with its chorus, “Summer comes/ To multiply!” – that breaks mid-song into two cavernous a cappella verses. But the real stumper belongs to closer “Woods,” a vocoder-drenched pace-breaker that shows Vernon on his furthest tangent. At once plaintive and experimental, never quite sure if its alluding to African chants or R&B tremolos, “Woods” is too liquid to feel contrived, yet too organic to feel emotionally detached.
Blood Bank may not offer the same repeat value as its predecessor, but it stands as a self-assured guide post for an artist comfortable with his personal growth and the blemishes that come as a result. Vernon has become, perhaps, a little too familiar with his bag of tricks, but if this EP proves anything, it’s that he’s always looking for more.