From those three months alone in a Wisconsin cabin to sharing a stage with collaborator Kanye West, Justin Vernon’s traveled far on the back of his angelic falsetto. When he self-released For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007 he probably didn’t expect Peter Gabriel to cover “Flume” a couple years later. Or to have West sampling material from 2009’s brief Blood Bank EP for his epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Speaking of which, it turns out Blood Bank’s Auto-Tuned closer “Woods,” the one that caught Kanye’s attention, also gave us a hint of where Bon Iver was going next.
When Vernon stopped through for a Quit Your Day Job interview in ’08, he talked about building a studio with his brother. That place is April Base, the remodeled veterinarian clinic in Fall Creek, WI where he ultimately put second proper full-length Bon Iver to tape. As Vernon explains, “It’s an unique space and destination; it’s our home out here … It’s been a wonderful freedom, working in a place we built. It’s also only three miles from the house I grew up in, and just ten minutes from the bar where my parents met.” So, close to home, even if not the same address. Fittingly, at its center Bon Iver sounds very like what you’ve come to expect from Vernon & Co., what he captured in that cabin in ’07, but with a number of additional studio (and collaborative/indie-rock communal) flourishes.
There are a lot of flourishes. You’ve heard “Calgary” and watched people compare it to Coldplay. There’s the “Civil War-sounding heavy metal” opener “Perth” with its martial drums, rising/rollicking guitar feedback, and National-esque horns that bleed into the guitar sustain, hand drums, soft rock-horns, backwoods fingerpicking, fuzz, and the more ‘funky’ almost TV On The Radio feel of “Minnesota, WI.” That incomplete list of elements gives you an idea: Bon Iver is pretty busy. You’ll feel the influence of his Gayngs gang via the various horns and strings and those aforementioned soft-rock flourishes. You’ll also find Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell) on pedal steel, Colin Stetson’s saxophones, and additional horns and string arrangements joining regulars Sean Carey, Mike Noyce and Matt McCaughan. Volcano Choir pals Jim Schoenecker and Tom Wincek provided “processing.”
There are quiet and more “old-school”-echoing parts, too, like the frosty “Michicant,” the pulsing piano-lined “Wash.,” and the gently anthemic “Holocene,” aka the longest song on the album. These tracks feature plenty of layers, but also plenty of open, fragile space. Still, folks might miss the simpler grit and more open pathos of “Flume” or the manly emotive feel of “Skinny Love.” Bon Iver tends to be airier and more “compositional.” It’ll be interesting to see how purists take to “Hinnom, TX”‘s busy/fragmentary high/low call and response or the glitchy (and pretty) instrumental “Lisbon, OH,” which sets up the lite-rock closer, “Beth / Rest,” a song that made someone across the room mention Steve Winwood and Bruce Hornsby, and that definitely pushes the “cheese” factor furthest.
In the end, whether or not you like the new record will largely depend on what you make of the arrangements surrounding the core. Vernon must know this. There’s probably a reason that, with all the emphasis put on place/home in his music, Bon Iver’s song titles are different cities around the world, mostly outside of Wisconsin: Australia’s “Perth,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Lisbon, OH,” etc. Also, though the label confirms the record’s self-titled (aka, just one Bon Iver), Vernon’s said it should be called “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” hinting that the album and project are their own sorta city, and no matter where he goes, or what he comes back with and adds to the mix, things will still be centered on his voice, the one that got him where he is, and the one that will probably make you want to cry, even with a ’70s guitar wanking behind it somewhere in the distance.