Goddamnit, Justin Vernon, don’t you do this to me again.
Look pal, I’m a grouchy, cynical, sarcastic curmudgeon and I’ve spent years sculpting this delicate mask of contempt and ennui to cover up my own insecurities and deep-seated emotional issues. Fuck you for trying to tear that all apart with your fucking beautiful music.
Here’s a quick science lesson for you, dear readers, on the phenomenon known as mechanical resonance. The premise is that most structures have an inherent resonant frequency and when an outside influence affects the structure with vibration at or near that frequency the structure will begin to oscillate and eventually break apart to release the stored energy. Think of the image of a wine glass breaking when someone sings a high-pitched note. The same principle can be applied to skyscrapers and bridges; once they start moving at a certain frequency they simply shake themselves apart.
Why do I bring this up? Well, because that’s what happened to me when I heard “For Emma, Forever Ago”; the whole of the album resonated with me at just the right place and it caught me unaware and honestly affected me. For a guy who can find something wrong with almost anything that’s a very rare occurrence. So rare in fact that I was certain it wouldn’t happen again in the near future, let alone 3 years later, let further alone from the same goddamn band. Yet here I am, listening to “Bon Iver” for what must literally be the 15th time and I’ve found myself looking around for things that could have potentially gotten in my eye to justify the puffiness in my face. It’s difficult to be objective about Bon Iver; when you’ve got a connection to a record the bias will always show through. There are things that I can pick apart, there are places where the album briefly dips below its stratospheric cruising altitude, but I can forgive them because of how this album makes me FEEL and for me that holds a lot of water.
If there was one theme to take away from the quiet sincerity of “For Emma, Forever Ago” it would be “patience” and that’s equally true here. Justin Vernon is in no rush to reveal these things he’s prepared and he has a master plan. There is nothing wasted on “Bon Iver”, and often it’s the places others may loiter that draw us in. An extra measure here and there between melodies and extended intros treat every sound as tiny gear in an immense but softly ticking clock; the words swim in the sound rather than drift above it and once again it’s the sound of his voice over his words that creates the binding fog filling the forest, trickling in around the trunks and leaves of expertly executed music. The extra few seconds of silence at the beginning of the album, where you have to check to make sure you actually hit Play, serve as a small signal to tell your mind to return to its seat before the warm, skipping notes of the main guitar theme of “Perth” begin. The opening track is a complex contrast to everything Bon Iver has produced thus far with the addition of distorted, chugging guitars, military marching beats, thunder and bombast it’s instantly implied that this is a whole new creature. The track is all galloping, clumsy energy chasing across the fields until it exhausts itself and crumbles to a close dripping seamlessly into “Minnesota, WI”. The album is full of little moments like this; surprising crests and comforting valleys, lingering pauses that let the mood ebb and flow like small tides pushing and pulling an anchored boat, always gently undulating while a current of drowsy strings and choral sigh slips silently underneath.
One high water mark, an ode to regret and distance called “Holocene” calls back fondly to the now legendary cabin where the mythology of “For Emma, Forever Ago” was birthed but bursts forth with weeping pedal steel, bumblebee saxophones the powerfully climactic confession “and at once I knew / I was not magnificent”. Follow that with the low tide calm of “Hinnom, TX” and “Wash.”, two desolate, expansive twin tracks that drift slowly across dusky flats stretching the space between the sprinklings of instrumentation to near silence until you’re alone in dry air with a few piano keys and Justin Vernon’s distracted but pensive musings. This quiet moment leads into the first single “Calgary”, a ghostly and driving number that imagines TV on the Radio if they’d come from Northern woodlands and the collected musicians of Bon Iver throw everything they’ve got at it.
Then there’s the album’s curveball closing number “Beth/Rest”, which may split fans as to whether Justin Vernon is taking Bon Iver in a frightening new direction or if he’s simply given in to some sort of reminiscent irony as the track is straight, un-winking Yacht Rock. Like Steve Winwood, Bruce Hornsby style smooth-adult-contemporary-lite-rock. It’s guaranteed to leave the listener with a kind of “huh” experience and doubtless there will be some who cry foul and claim it’s cheesy (my wife included) but it has a certain sincerity sprinkled on top of what would otherwise be a very tongue-in-cheek dig on the Kenny G Era in music’s history. Personally it’s one of my favorite songs on the album and I’d defend it further but I fear it would expose my obsession with mid-tempo late 80’s piano rock. Oh wait, I think I just did.
Overall this “Bon Iver” is everything one could hope from a sophomore release; it builds on the foundation of its predecessor and improves as well as innovates. It explores itself while never straying too far from the overall tone and it really shows the range of Justin Vernon’s song writing skill. It stands up to repeated (and repeated) listens and I’m already securing it in my top 5 of 2011. Just a goddamn good record. That is all.