The Spin Doctor – Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”

Bon Iver, “Bon Iver” (4AD/Jagjaguwar)

4.3 out of 5

Say what you will about Justin Vernon, you certainly can’t criticize the man’s work ethic, or suggest he lacks ambition. Though it has been two years since the release of Bon Iver’s 2009 EP Blood Bank and three years since the critically acclaimed debut LP, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon hasn’t exactly been resting on his laurels. In addition to a hectic touring schedule, he contributed music to Red Hot’s Dark Was The Night compilation, released an LP with experimental pop side-project Volcano Choir, and contributed to Gayngs 2010’s soft-rock schlock, Relayted. Oh yeah, he also contributed to a little known Hip-Hop artist named Kanye West on his 2010 blockbuster My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That’s a pretty impressive resume for a dude who, prior to 2008, was singing alt-country and yet to explore his unique falsetto.

Which brings us to 2011. How easy it would have been for Vernon to return to the remote Wisconsin cabin, where he wrote and recorded the bulk of Emma, for a straight-ahead sequel. After a three-year absence, another record chock-full of acoustic guitars and forlorn love songs would have been a pretty easy sell, but Vernon had other ideas. In fact, if you were to take an afternoon, listen to the diversity of material Vernon has produced over the past three years, and throw it in a blender, you would end up with a record very similar to the one he has produced. Ambitious in scope, Bon Iver combines folk-rock sensibility with experimental pop, and makes a compelling argument for why Vernon is one of the more exciting and versatile artists around.

The opener, Perth, begins with a hushed electric guitar, a distant marching snare drum and Vernon’s layered vocals. The song gradually opens-up into driving percussion and distorted guitars, followed by an onslaught of brass, synth and lead guitar flourishes. It’s an absolute mess of a track, yet the arrangement introduces all of the parts (and there’s a lot of them) in such a way that it morphs and grows organically to the point that, after a few listens, you can’t imagine it any other way. “Still alive who you love”, sings Vernon. Perth doesn’t really end so much as it bleeds into Minnesota, WI. Unless you’re watching the track counter on your stereo, you may assume (as I did) that the banjo infused Minnesota plays as Perth‘s addendum.

Although the mixing for Perth and Minnesota feels somewhat claustrophobic, everything is given room to breath on the stunning Holocene. Containing an army of instrumentation including: saxophones (courtesy of virtuoso Colin Stetson), trombone, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, synths, pedal steel, not one but two drummers and additional percussion, the track is wisely anchored around a simple three-chord finger-picked guitar progression. As everything ebbs and flows from the guitar, the arrangement retains a level of simplicity that gives Vernon room to contemplate one of the more lyrically frank moments on the record: “Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me” he sings, and, later confessing “…and at once I knew I was not magnificent”. Equally impressive is Wash., which, like Holocene, takes a variety of instrumentation and roots it in something simple. Yet, instead of guitar, here Vernon takes Rob Moose’s beautifully restrained string arrangement and builds it around a hollow-sounding, two chord piano measure. Wash., like several of the tracks here, defies the conventional verse/chorus structure, instead relying on instrumentation, ambient atmospherics (see Hinnom, TX and Lisbon, OH), and Vernon’s voice to create some truly goose bump inducing moments.

The album’s closer, Beth/Rest, is an unabashed tribute to 1980’s adult contemporary soft rock. Full of synths (for the music nerds in the house, Vernon recorded the track using a Korg M1 synthesizer), sax, and flashy guitar leads, Beth/Rest sounds like a cross between classic Bruce Hornsby and a David Foster film score. The song has no business working and is certainly the odd-man out on the record, yet Vernon sells it. This is largely due to his complete embrace of the source material. Much like Destroyer’s Kaputt, released earlier this year, Vernon doesn’t simply retread the genre or seek to cynically mock it, rather, he borrows from it and crafts something current and uniquely his own (I don’t recall auto-tuned vocals being an 80’s adult contemporary theme, as is the case here).

As compelling as Bon Iver is, it certainly isn’t without its flaws. The mix often comes off as muddy and compressed, (see Perth and Minnesota) which really compromises the transparency and effectiveness of the elaborate instrumentation. Additionally, Vernon’s lyrics are largely indecipherable, making it difficult to engage with the material at a narrative level. As the timbre of Vernon’s unique voice functions more as an additional instrument rather than that of a conventional singer, perhaps this was deliberate. I, for one, however would have appreciated a little more enunciation. Still, these are minor grievances. As much as the scale of Bon Iver’s songs has substantially grown since Emma, what hasn’t changed is Vernon’s unique ability to craft a haunting arrangement around a simple guitar or piano measure. While the additional instrumentation brings depth and texture to the record, if you were to strip it all away you would still be left with something truly compelling. That Vernon finds a way to retain such intimacy amongst the noise demonstrates that although he has broadened his horizons, he’s still yet to reach beyond his grasp.

- Ewan Christie

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