Justin Vernon is primarily known for having recorded his highly emotional debut album For Emma, Forever Ago alone in his father's cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. His lyrics, his magnificent falsetto, his, and his band's, instrumentation, all of it combined to form a beautiful but ultimately saddening tale. Vernon's exploration of heartbreak in For Emma gave us an insight into him as a person, and that is what makes his music so ultimately appealing and relatable. Now, four years later, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago, has finally arrived. It's clear that Vernon has changed, he's experienced more of life and its challenges and wonders, but at the same time, the uplifting sadness that was at the core of For Emma lives on. He has become more confident as a musician, and with that he has once again created beautiful music that, despite its melancholy tone, you can't help but listen to, even if it constantly pulls at your heartstrings. It's a rare occurrence when you come across an album such as this, one that, by random chance or timing, you connect with on an intense and deeply personal level, where the lyrics explore the same emotions that you are feeling, where the tone and atmosphere of the music mirror how you are viewing the world at the time. For me, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is that album.
In the four years between For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon musical breadth has expanded significantly. Whether it be recording alongside Kanye West or leading the massive musical project Gayngs, Vernon's influences and processes have completely changed. In an interview with Pitchfork, Vernon said, "I don't find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore. I lost that. I started being so interested in other kinds of music, and allowing influences that I've always listened to-- from Bruce Hornsby to Charlie Mingus-- to come into the fold." Upon listening to Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the differences between it and For Emma are instantly present. The Bon Iver of old was held together by the themes of heartbreak, of pain and loss, but the the Bon Iver of today takes these themes and lets each individual song tell its own story and create its own impressions.
Each song has a story to tell, memories to share, and sadness to experience. Looking at the lyrics of all ten songs on the album, which Vernon released when the album was leaked last month, you can see that Bon Iver has spun a finely crafted web of deeply personal and thought-provoking stories. Talking to Pitchfork, he stated that "[p]eople can interpret [lyrics] however they want, but at least we can agree about what they are. They're meant to be something." "Michicant," for example, starts with the line "I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age," a line that evokes the naive and innocent nature we carry before real life unfolds before our eyes. The song quickly divulges into the confusion of love at a young age, the excitement and the insecurities that go along with it, and Vernon's vocals carry it with such evocative emotion and expression.
Vernon's vocals are easily the strongest aspect of the album, with moments of intensity or calm being delivered with the utmost honesty and believability. "Holocene," is a masterpiece, with Vernon's vocals being trailed by a soothing guitar riff and subtle percussion. But, in this case, Vernon's voice is what stands out the most. The way his falsetto rises or calms at just the right moments, each word seems to hold so much meaning, and the lyrics themselves are a story that cannot be fully told in a mere five-minutes and thirty-seven seconds. "It's part of me, apart from me," one sentence that holds so much meaning. While talking to Pitchfork, he said that, when it comes to relationships, "[i]t has a lot to do with realizing that, no matter how much you care about a person, you have to be able to know that you can sit down at night and be happy with who you are without that person." The way he carries the song along with such conflicted vocals is absolutely brilliant, and really drives home the fact that the memories we have and the people we've shared them with are always with us and make us who we are, even if they make us realize that we are flawed. "[A]nd at once I knew, I was not magnificent;" even Vernon realizes that he himself is a flawed human being.
Vernon implements this use of memories into each and every song on the album, giving us a sense that he is still trying to figure out what the moments in his past mean, and what lessons that have to teach him. "Wash.," for example, gives us a solemn look at his memories of a girl named Claire. Backed up by echoing piano keys, the lyrics paint a picture of sorrow, "home / we’re savage high / come / we finally cry / oh and we don it / because it’s right / Claire, I was too sore for sight." Even in the lyrics of "Calgary," the idea of memories appear explicitly, "always keep that message taped / cross your breasts you won’t erase / I was only for your very space." The song itself is a great example of how Bon Iver has developed, with Vernon's vocals, the drums, the guitar, and the subtle inclusion of synthesizer samples all blending together in a seamless and dream-like manner.
The album itself is beautifully structured, with each song after the next presenting something new, something that the song before it didn't explore. This time around, Bon Iver expanded the band to include a multitude of instruments with incredible musicians playing them. Musicians such as saxophonist Colin Stetson (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire) and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz (Wilco) have joined the foray this time around, adding elements of fantastic experimentation to a band that had initially restricted themselves to conventional instruments. This is immediately evident on album opener "Perth," which goes from slow and calm to a heavy-hitting, percussion-driven crescendo so quickly that it's hard to realize that four minutes have gone by.
This idea of experimentation came from Vernon's work with Kanye West and Ryan Olson (Gayngs), where he "watched how they were willing to see so many ideas through and allow the weirdest things into songs-- things that might not work initially, but that you could ultimately twist and contort into working." Album closer "Beth/Rest" has been criticized by many as being a blatant and unnecessary throwback to the 1980s and the soul pop that plagued that decade, and while those people are allowed to voice their own opinions, my opinion doesn't quite match up. The lyrics in themselves are very heartfelt and passionate, and while the song initially came across as cheesy, I've grown to appreciate it as a joyful, yet sad, conclusion to an amazing album. Vernon himself says it best, "I don't think it's going to end up being the biggest statement of my career because I have so much more to learn and grow. But I love it as the last song on this record. It feels so good."
What makes Bon Iver, Bon Iver such an amazing album is the fact that the album carries with it themes that transcend the album itself, themes that are part of life, of growing up, and it does so in such a seamless way. Each song flows into the next, with each song carrying its own identity but still feeling like its part of a collective of ideas, thoughts, and memories. Bon Iver have shown that they are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were when For Emma, Forever Ago was released. It's rare to come across an album such as this, with each song being carefully crafted to be exactly what it needs to be, and each song carrying with it such a gravity of emotions. This album will always hold an important place in my memories.