As the story goes, Justin Vernon wrote his first album, For Emma Forever Ago, alone in his father’s Wisconsin cabin. He wrote the album without the pressure of success rubbing his shoulders, but instead the pain of emotional hardships stabbing his gut—or so it goes. Songs were congruent. Collectively they exposed an image of some personal strife. The album was short of perfect—ground breaking even.
Now Vernon of Bon Iver returns with their self titled sophomore album. Oh—the importance of the sophomore album. It stands as the first and only benchmark for artistic progress in a complete work. It proves what the artist yields through success, or struggle. It determines future success. But more importantly, it allows the musician to answer an important question: what’s left?
The album Bon Iver is an invitation into the process of continuing the craft, now shared with fellow musicians, in good company with saxophonist Colin Stetson and Pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz. It’s a band’s album where country twang meets jazz percussion. Bass synth was added, along with some keys work your grandmother would appreciate on the track “Beth / Rest”. But Vernon still sings picturesque lyrics through a falsetto filter, and fields of instrumentation separate the lyrical wooded groves, meaningful prose from Vernon’s personal insight.
The music is more textured, though. The songs are built communally, rather than handcrafted meticulously like a beautiful ship in a bottle. This is an all hands on deck collaboration, where Songs breakdown, musicians shine through as individuals and then return around that unique voice.
Where “Michicant” may be the missing link to For Emma, “Hinnom, TX” might be Homo sapien. Vernon allows his falsetto filter to crumble under the weight of the lines “in the first of light; past the Noachide; bodies wrapped in white.” We literally hear a new voice. Unless you’ve heard Vernon in his lesser know blues duo, The Shouting Matches, you may be surprised by the resurgence of a deeper voice, also heard on the track “Minnesota, WI”. You know it when you hear it. You know his voice is in the room and part of you would like to get to know this new persona—almost as though a new character has walked into the scene.
This album reaches classic, ’80s ballad stature on “Calgary.” It doesn’t offend. The music video however—illustrates the song as a woman’s dream, in which she explores a wooded marsh with her counterpart, both dressed in white. They drop hot coals into a lake and set it on fire. She then reincarnates as a bear, upside down on a chunk of Astroturf. It ends with a weird metaphor that only Stanley Kubrick could pull off (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey).
As an album, Vernon invites us into his family circle, rather than his attic. The musicianship proves that a Bon Iver is now a band. The album does not break ground—and it is not an extension of For Emma. This sophomore album is going to grant Vernon his touring wings, where songs like this come into full bloom under the unshackled, free-range act of live performance.