Bon Iver ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ – Review

26 Jul

Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why you like a song or even more simply, what a song is about. Bon Iver’s debut album, ‘For Emma Forever Ago’ charmed everyone who heard it, but you couldn’t really say what it was that made it brilliant, why it connected so widely, or what the guy was even going on about. But what was not in doubt was its beauty – it was obviously a beautiful record. It was equally obvious that Justin Vernon was pouring his heart out, it just wasn’t so obvious what was making him pour his heart out. But certain clues were dropped that told us what we already half-suspected – Justin’s heart had been broken. It was there in the stark arrangements, his whispering falsetto, his painfully unguarded lyrics, the album title etc. Through the fog we felt his pain.

‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’, the sort of self titled follow-up, is somehow even more mysterious than the debut. Here, there isn’t an overriding theme, a single subject, there are many themes and many subjects. Musically as well this is a diverse and scattered record. When the debut album was released, Bob Iver was essentially a pseudonym for Justin Vernon as a solo artist, but now Bon Iver are a proper, fully functioning, and incredibly ambitious band. Justin appeared on Kanye West’s hugely acclaimed and hugely extravagant album ‘My beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and whilst few would have predicted the rapper’s style would rub off on him, it clearly has; this new album has a similarly wide musical range, and Bon Iver have clearly given every instrument in the box a work out.

This is obvious from the off, with ‘Perth’ a song that is a world away from anything on the debut in many respects, and yet is curiously similar. ‘For Emma…’ was of course recorded by Justin, alone in his wood cabin in the middle of nowhere over a six month period. He recorded most of the instruments himself, and he multi-tracked the vocals which gave the album its unique, ghostly sound. As his 2008 -10 tour progressed Justin seemed to pick up musicians at every city he stopped off at, and now the band consists of about ten different people. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ features a wide range of performers, and not to mention instruments. Songs often start with Justin and his guitar before building into musical epics with string and horn sections, slide guitars, synths, percussion and all kinds of other sounds. It’s progressive, it’s ambitious, it’s experimental and maximalist but it’s never over the top or indulgent. For all the bluster it’s remarkably subtle, even restrained. The quieter songs (such as ‘Lisbon’ and ‘Wash’) come at exactly the right moments, as do the odd throwbacks to the starkness of ‘For Emma (such as Towers’). There is even the epic finale in the form of a proper 80’s soft rock ballad ‘Beth/Rest’. The song could have been a massive disastor, but it’s executed in a stunning way, and it’s the perfect end to a perfectly structured album.

You couldn’t talk about ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ without mentioning the lyrics, which are (at any given time) impressionistic, poetic, nonsensical, grammatically incorrect, beautiful, vague, deeply revealing and at times utterly frustrating. The songs are built like puzzles that take time to crack, but when the meanings do reveal themselves it gives you a wonderful feeling. Take ‘Holocene’ for example; after many listens it struck me that it was a song about coming of age, about realizing how small and unimportant you are in the grander scheme of things, and each verse tells of a different personal revolution, whilst the chorus is the euphoric declaration ‘At once I knew I was not magnificant…I could see for Miles, miles, miles.’

‘Calgary’ is about the challenges of growing old and keeping a relationship going, whilst ‘Michiant’ and ‘Towers’ are about the innocence, the naivity, the pain and the ultimate let down of young love. Some of the other songs are still puzzling me; ‘Wash’ is a complete mystery, although it’s another emotional weepie with a key line being ‘Claire, I was too sore for sight.’ ‘Minnesota, Wi’ is equally strange/impenetrable (‘armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’) although the key line that gets repeated is ‘Never Gonna Break’ which speaks for itself.

On the cover of the album is a painting of an imaginary landscape (different landscapes crop up a lot on the album, as demonstrated by the song titles which are all place names). The painting is a good metaphor for the album; it depicts a beautiful, green landscape filled by nature as well as signs of nature’s destruction. In the centre of the painting is a single log cabin, representing perhaps the place where Justin recorded his debut album on his own. For whilst ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ is an ambitious, destructive, beautiful album at its heart is Justin Vernon, always alone in the middle, with his guitar and stunning voice. The album is fascinating for all the things that are going on musically and lyrically, but it’s a classic album because of what’s at its heart; Justin Vermon, his guitar and his voice.

9/10

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