As summer begins to hit full stride in Wisconsin, the beer gardens open up, cities and towns seemingly swell in population as streets are flooded with freshly-awoken hibernators, and I would feel remiss not to revisit the basement-perfected, yet sun-bleached rock of this past winter’s debuts from Yuck and The Hussy. But amongst all of the warm-weather nostalgia found stretching its legs this time of year, we are handed version 2.0 of Bon Iver’s sweeping sounds of wintry melancholia.
It’s been three years since Justin Vernon’s story presented the perfect romantic-tragedy of a backdrop for his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, a falsetto-drenched folk record that oozed heart-wrenching catharsis. It slowly spread like a virus, infecting even its harshest critics with its undeniably pervasive atmosphere and gripping emotion. Since 2008, Vernon has engaged several collaborations, lending his vocals to records by Gayngs and Volcano Choir while also putting in guest spots ranging from the single “Isis” off of All Tiny Creatures’ fantastic debut Harbors earlier this year, to working with Rick Ross (who has since called Vernon a “genius”) and Kanye West on two tracks from the immutable My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Vernon’s ascension the last few years has been as impeccable as it has been expansive. Yet, he remains humble: He reiterates often that Bon Iver is not a solo project as he continues to split all tour revenue evenly among the three members and lives in remote Eau Claire, Wis., where he goes unnoticed and remains unbothered by the limelight.
Lyrical confirmation of such down-to-earth sentiments, which pour out of Vernon in every interview he gives, arrive in “Holocene.” After each verse recounts a setting, a memory, Vernon chimes in with the most poignant chorus of the record, crooning, “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent…” In the midst of this humility, this record is undeniably a step forward in the evolving emotional landscape of Bon Iver. A growth and potential that is, again, acknowledged as the chorus ends with, “But I could see for miles and miles and miles.”
If For Emma, Forever Ago was the therapeutic solace of a reclusive winter, and Blood Bank EP was an emergence from that reclusive state, a look outward and an acknowledgement of the sublimely beautiful and blinding white of the natural winter world that surrounds, then I suppose Bon Iver is the preparation and early signs of spring. It’s a little brighter, not as lonesome, yet the falsetto, the resonant heavy-hearted plucks and the deliberate, echoing chimes and pianos throughout still allow listeners to feel the humbled heart being carried forward.
As with the debut, it is difficult (and pointless) to pick out individual highlights; it’s more about the feel of the record as a whole than the individual movements. And while For Emma may have had more standout moments and infectious choruses to stick to, Bon Iver‘s maturity and self-awareness are just as, if not more, invitingly cathartic than the debut; a result of being more polished and colorful as a whole. Despite the previous example though, the meaning of the words on Bon Iver are not where the growth is displayed, as the lyrics certainly more indecipherable than preceding efforts. Even when read, while poetically satisfying, the words only lend listeners the faint hint of coherence, as on “Minnesota, WI”: “settle past a patience where wishes and your will are spilling pictures / water’s running through in the valley where we grew to write this scripture.” Yet, it’s through presentation, not meaning, that Vernon’s voice becomes the group’s most important instrument, emoting without the literal meaning to glean.
“Michicant,” for example, is a waltz without a chorus, and lines like “melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page” make its lyrics pretty inaccessible. Yet Vernon’s dactylic delivery is more reassuring than the meanings of the actual words could ever be, and melodically, its more patient than poignant, presenting a subtly beautiful backdrop for the occasionally indecipherable soul-searching. The track doesn’t ask for your attention, and therefore, could get overlooked. Yet it tells listeners that even Bon Iver’s seemingly throwaway tracks are exercises in songwriting.
In short, Bon Iver has added depth to the listening experience. This second full-length effort is less intriguing superficially; granted, it is much more spacious and no longer feels like Vernon’s stranded in a cabin in the middle of the woods wrapped in a blanket strumming a rustic acoustic. But this is exactly why it’s a more impressive record: the group retains their intense sense of introspection and catharsis while expanding their sound and technique in several productive directions.