If there was any problem with Bon Iver’s 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, it’s that it meant too much to too many people. It made people feel things that were painful in a way that felt personal for everyone. It was hypnotic, cohesive, and had one hell of a backstory. Songs filtered suffering towards the direction of catharsis, and the expectations that come with a follow-up to an album so often called perfect are impossible.
Well three years, one EP, several side projects (some guy named Kanye West?), and still coasting off one now-infamous cemetery performance as the sun rose over Los Angeles, its successor Bon Iver, Bon Iver is here. An album approached with a mixture of excitement and fear, afraid of its ability to ruin the modern legend of Justin Vernon, does not disappoint. It’s not For Emma. In fact, it’s not for anyone— if that’s what you’re expecting, you won’t get that. This album is entirely different than his (their) debut, but comfortably so, like seeing an old friend who’s changed without you. The pockets of cold are now buzzing with warmth. There’s a sheen to the music now, but it feels deliberate. There’s a sense of perspective that’s not as raw, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Production is more slick but he’s also accommodating the band he’s utilizing more now that he’s not just in his cabin with his guitar. It’s still subtle, and I still find myself hearing new things with each listen.
“Perth” sets the tone from start with Vernon announcing “I’m ridding all your stories.” Around the time he says “This is not a place, not yet awake,” you realize the album opener, with its militant percussion is a call to arms, an invitation back to life. It won’t be the desolate woods we associate with Vernon after Emma, but a breakout from confinement into open space, and damn does the fresh air feel good. The last two minutes of the song seem to be there just allow yourself to take it all in and settle into the album’s journey back to life.
The first thing that strikes you about “Minnesota, WI” is the lower register of Vernon’s voice in those dense, almost hostile verses that make the simplicity of his delicate “never gonna break” concession all the more beautiful, a sort of reprieve from the storm. There are parts when he weaves in and out of natural and falsetto so effectively, exhibiting an actual control and understanding both of that voice that’s become so certainly his, and the feelings that once felt hopelessly unmanageable.
“Holocene” seems to borrow the finger-picking from Vernon’s own 2006 pre-Bon Iver track “Hazelton.” The line “You fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street” sounds as good as “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent” sounds bad (mostly because “magnificent” is probably not meant to be sung), but “I could see for miles, miles, miles” makes it all okay and asserts the hovering perspective this album is all about.
“Towers” is the strumming joy of discovery, and “Michicant” immediately hits in a very real place, and I don’t exactly know why, an inability to cope with his ear for sound. It’s the moment I stopped trying to be logical about listening to the album. Is that a cash register I hear? Whatever.
The ghostly-sparse “Hinnom, TX” is probably the furthest departure from their signature sound, largely because a voice other than Justin Vernon’s is prominently featured. The overlapping bellows and throbbing synths actually bring about a solar peace that swirls and sweeps as “Wash.” settles you down with its twinkling under a warm night sky.
We already gave our first impression of “Calgary,” but here, in context, it’s the spiritual climax that prepares you (along with “Lisbon, OH,” a two-minute instrumental look at how far you’ve come) for album closer “Beth/Rest”, whose 80s adult-contemporary stylings had me convinced it’s a deliberate nostalgia. Is that Justin Vernon or Peabo Bryson? Maybe it’s a play on the ideals these kinds of cheesy love songs from his youth had him believing. Either way, the song contains the line “I ain’t livin in the dark no more,” which is a succinct summation of the album.
If their debut was “a moment hanging like breath on air,” Bon Iver is the act of pulling yourself back up from what Emma did to you. It’s an album from the vantage point and perspective that For Emma couldn’t have, the transition from a very specific place and time to here, everywhere. It still celebrates the solitude of nature, but this time it’s not lonely. For Emma was frigid in all the ways Bon Iver is bright.
A perfect (there’s that word again) counterpart to their first album that builds from its groundwork but takes you to another place entirely. The point, it seems, is that like broken bones that grow back stronger, a broken heart, once healed can beat louder, echoing back some newfound awareness picked up along the way.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is out on Jagjaguwar Records June 21, but courtesy of The New York Times, stream the album in its entirety below.