Bon Iver – Bon Iver

In 2006, no one knew who Justin Vernon was. He had been playing with a band called DeYarmond Edison in North Carolina, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. When the group dissolved, as anyone who follows music blogs or magazines has now been told a thousand times, Vernon went to his family’s cabin in Wisconsin by himself. Over the course of that winter, he recorded For Emma, Forever Ago, the first thing he would release as Bon Iver (a bastardization of the French for “good winter”), and his life would change forever.

This “Wisconsin cabin mythology,” as some of us have come to call it, couldn’t but contribute to the popularity of that first album; it gave it mystique. Riding on its own merit (touted as “neo-soul,” Vernon’s stacked vocals and stark instrumentals quickly turned niche-iconic) it became a blog success and was picked up and re-released by big indie Jagjaguwar in 2008. Suddenly Vernon and Bon Iver were both critical darlings and fan favorites. Hell, I even wrote a more-than-gushing review of For Emma for this very rag you’re reading now, and I stand by it to this day. It may be in my top five records of all time.

Since then, Bon Iver – now a proper band with multiple members – released their Blood Bank EP and contributed a track to the Dark Was The Night Red Hot charity compilation. Vernon himself lent guest vocals to everyone from Lia Ices to The Rosebuds to Kanye West. He joined a super-group called Volcano Choir (with fellow Wisconsonites Collections of Colonies of Bees) and one called Gayngs (with members of Megafaun and loads of others). It took four years for him to release another proper LP with Bon Iver, and despite how busy he and the band have been in the interim, it’s the first thing they’ve made that’s ripe for “sophomore slump” scrutiny.

What becomes apparent, though, when I put on my critical hat about it, is this: more than ever before, bands, the massive music PR engine that promotes their work and the critics that cover it are not separate, independent entities. They’re symbiotic, and the very time-and-place-centric story that surrounded For Emma’s release may have sunk in for Vernon and co. They can’t create in a vacuum, and they don’t.

See, almost every track on this self-titled release is named after a place – real or imaginary. A trend the band began with “Brackett, WI” for DWTN, Bon Iver contains songs called “Perth” (real), “Lisbon, OH” (real), “Minnesota, WI” (fake) and “Hinnom, TX” (fake), among others. In my opinion, these compositions use emotional places as well as physical ones for inspiration. For Emma was just that – transportive. It took you somewhere else, where things were mournful and hopeful all at once, where someone can create a thing of beauty without reference to the patterns of industry and the outside world. All of Bon Iver’s work since builds upon that example. It’s not that all these songs take listeners to their familiar hideaways, however, it’s that they take us somewhere new.

Yes, the record’s still airy and wide-scope, but there are aspects of these compositions that make feet hit the pavement. The world that informed For Emma was one of isolation, alienation, frustration, reflection and anticipated change. Bon Iver instead proves a function of Vernon’s world the last four years. It’s full (cryptically, as always) of unexpected transcendent moments and humility in the face of grandeur, of things likely encountered during world tours and the negotiation of newfound fame.

And for all that, it’s understandably a bit less relatable.

Though Bon Iver prominently features many of the things for which For Emma became so beloved – telescopic vocals, guitars recorded in the red, found sounds and random clattering – it also includes things like typical rock drumming (“Perth”) and a reverent (not irreverent!) look at Say Anything-era ’80s synth pop (“Beth/Rest”).

Especially instrumentally, Bon Iver has expanded by leaps and bounds. Though without the forays into autotune that characterized Blood Bank, electronics make a much more noticeable appearance – take the throbbing synth backbone of “Hinnom, TX,” for example. Even if the familiar piano ostenatos we learned to expect still remain (“Wash.”), they’re bolstered by string sections and horn choirs via instrumentalists who’ve performed with the likes of Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and The National. Bon Iver is a backwoods operation no more, so why should we expect it to sound like one?

What I’m saying, I think, is that things move forward, and Vernon’s career did so with surprising speed. We’ve all grown together with Bon Iver, and this new, beautiful record is a testament to the maturation of something and someone we were excited to watch come into their own. In the end, though, we can’t have that first, solitary moment back, and neither can Vernon. We’re in this together now, for better or worse.

Bon Iver
Bon Iver