Artist: Bon Iver
Album: Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Here Bon Iver’s walled-in sobriety is stripped from the girl and given to geography, an expanse that seems contrary, but isn’t. Because Justin Vernon’s project can be waking and elegiac of pain while still being panoramic. Battle hymn “Perth” starts a pixie in Vernon’s rain-shocked guitar, before kneeling to an ensemble of lobbing artillery: military drumming and Vernon’s last rites lead. It’s awesome, in a medieval and modern sense.
And obviously the man’s afforded this scope partly by a larger budget. The low-tech reprieve (that became For Emma, Forever Ago) demanded Vernon to overcome technical issues, with ingenious songwriting. But Bon Iver hasn’t slackened its emotional chokehold. The moments worth smallness on Bon Iver, Bon Iver remain as so. On “Wash.”, a label’s backing offers just a few violins to compliment Vernon’s plangent piano, deserving of a bedside window somewhere.
The album lapses from things formidable into interludes murkier than memory, stopping at songs still dreaming between. Out of “Perth”, comes the swampy tunneling of “Minnesota, WI”, where Vernon’s lower register foils a foundering flute. Vernon again uses his chest voice to haunting effect in lofty “Hinnom, TX”, like a heartsick satellite sending a distress call through a choir of dwarf stars.
Still, not all of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a unilateral move toward a weird sonic palette, requiring speculative imagery. “Towers” sounds slick with rain, caravanning the roads of Earth, with the lyrics of plain people (“Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed.”)
There are plenty of choice instruments and production techniques. If the saxophone and flute making some of the songs sound like 80s soft rock go unnoticed, they certainly don’t on closer “Beth/Rest”. In a smear of pedal steel guitar (courtesy of Greg Leisz), the aforementioned woodwinds, and a rich organ almost drowning out Vernon’s call, “Beth/Rest” ends the album on a wildly different note than heard before from this project. But like For Emma’s finale “Re: Stacks”, “Beth/Rest” is the natural release for an album starting at its tense-most song, gradually winding to catharsis.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is close to being a suitable follow-up. The record’s geographical mission travels from Portugal to Israel to America, or at least comma-fused amalgams of those places (see “Lisbon, OH”), but passes over the cabin where Vernon found the marrowy truth for his first album. But even with certainty and money, Vernon makes an album of disparately beautiful arrangements, all with the commonality of songwriting that is irreverent to convention.
Grade: A (94)