On Bon Iver’s much-romanticized 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, singer-songwriter (and then the band’s sole member) Justin Vernon sounded trapped in his own personal Ice Age.
Fresh off two painful breakups—first from a girl and then from his band—the singer retired to his father’s hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin and went about setting his grief to tape. Wintry, introspective, and thin-ice fragile, the resulting album bears the scars of its creation.
In the years since, Vernon has become a much more public figure, recording with sprawling indie-rock collective Gayngs, releasing an album with his own side project Volcano Choir and, most notably, working alongside rapper Kanye West, who sampled the Bon Iver track “Woods” for his own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and even invited the scraggly-bearded Wisconsinite along for recording/brainstorming sessions in Hawaii.
But despite a notably heightened profile, Vernon still returned to his home state when it came time to record his sophomore effort, Bon Iver, setting up shop in a studio he built in a former veterinary clinic in Fall Creek—a Wisconsin town located just a short drive from his Eau Claire birthplace. Yet where For Emma… revels in isolation, setting his confessional lyrics (“Go find another lover…to string along,” he sings like a broken man on its title track) against a snowy musical backdrop, Bon Iver comes across as a warmer, more inviting affair.
It’s also cryptic as all hell, as though the idea of sharing another record as intimate as his debut became a source of some consternation. So instead of pulling more lines from his journal, Vernon pens verses that come across like fragmented remembrances (think Memento set to earnest art-folk) or slippery haikus. “Solar peace/Well it swirls and sweeps/You just set it,” he offers amidst sparse piano on “Hinnom, TX.” Despite the coded language, the singer’s fragile pipes imbue songs with deep layers of meaning even when his words are at their most impenetrable.
“Holocene,” for one, hints at a thaw in both name—the word is taken from a geological epoch that marked the end of the Wisconsin glaciation (fitting, no?)—and sound, layering together Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto, deliberate acoustic picking, and the slow rumble of freshly awoken-from-hibernation drums. Elsewhere, the singer flirts with psychedelic folk (“Perth”), eases into the sparse brass-haunted “Towers,” and delivers a love letter to Claire
(not a girl, but his birthplace) on the minimalist, string-kissed “Wash.”
Then there’s “Beth/Rest,” an 80s throwback that sounds like Vernon soft rocking with Mr. Mister. Still, beneath the satiny, saxophone-flecked AOR surface (admittedly, a tough hurdle for many), lies a fairly gorgeous song about reclaiming some degree of happiness, highlighted by the singer’s admission “I ain’t living in the dark no more.” It’ll be interesting to see where the light leads him on his next go-round. —Andy Downing