Release Date: June 21, 2011
It’s a testament to Justin Vernon’s flair for mythmaking that when Kanye West featured the bearded indie bard on last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he identified Vernon by his stage name, Bon Iver. A simple case of brand management? Sure, okay. By the time West called him up to the big show, Vernon had already established the value of his alias with Bon Iver’s widely acclaimed 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.
Take another look at Fantasy‘s credits, though, and consider that here was a guy from Wisconsin who worked in a rootsy idiom prized for its transparency being afforded the same creative cover as Jay-Z and Pusha T. You wouldn’t think that Bon Iver’s obsessively retold origin story — the breakup, the cabin, the ensuing isolation — would prove as penetrating as, say, a violent past spent selling crack. But it did.
Vernon re-accesses that potent sense of self on Bon Iver, a stunning sophomore set whose landscape-painting cover art underscores the idea that his songs inhabit their own psychological space. Once again, he cultivates an enchanted atmosphere, with gorgeous melodies, unique textures, and beautiful singing that may well score Vernon a fresh freelance gig with whatever rapper rules 2012.
The difference is that Bon Iver no longer functions as a woodshed operation. Having evidently decided that no one man should have all that power, Vernon expands his circle, roping in members of his live band, as well as horn players, a string arranger, and pedal-steel session whiz Greg Leisz, who’s played with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Avenged Sevenfold. Vernon doesn’t wait long to show them all off, either, building opener “Perth” to a thundering psych-folk climax within the album’s first three minutes. Elsewhere, the extra players add jittery rhythmic detail to “Calgary” and give “Minnesota, WI” an unexpected shot of bass-in-your-face funk.
We don’t hear from West directly on Bon Iver, but you can detect his influence in the music’s newfound luxury. It’s hard to imagine Vernon recording closer “Beth/Rest” — a straight-up soft-rock ballad set atop Doogie Howser electric piano — prior to his collaboration with the 808s & Heartbreak auteur. Yet Vernon never fails to make these songs feel like a product of his singular vision. That’s due in part to a lyrical sensibility grown only more idiosyncratic (and loosey-goosey) since For Emma, Forever Ago. “We’re sewing up through the latchet greens,” he sings in the hushed, piano-based “Wash.” “Unpeel keenness, honey, bean for bean.” In “Holocene” he lifts a line from the Who’s “I Can See for Miles,” but clarity seems of little interest to this inveterate jumbler.
At least when it comes to words, that is. Like West, Vernon has the bearing of someone who found his musical voice before he knew what he wanted to say, and throughout Bon Iver his spine-tingling sonics speak volumes: the coin-purse percussion in “Michicant,” the layered falsetto vocals in “Towers,” the taste-flouting audacity of those keyboards in “Beth/Rest.” (Real talk: If this song had been released in 1980, it might’ve beaten Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” for the Record of the Year Grammy.) As with any great folktale, what you hear inside the sound is up to you. Bon Iver just wants you to get lost in the world.