One of the archetypal characters in modern indie is the bearded folkie. Lumberjack or poet, we don’t know, but regardless of location or season, this gent won’t take the stage without his wool cap, flannel shirt, acoustic guitar, and impressive beard. And when you imagined this individual, you either thought of Iron and Wine’s Samuel Bean, or Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. And that’s totally fair, Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago was written and recorded alone by Vernon in a cabin in Wisconsin while Vernon was recovering from major illness and a break-up, perfectly capturing the bearded folkie archetype.
But, thankfully, Bon Iver’s expanded since then, and Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a full-scale production. And it announces its arrival with the wonderful opener “Perth”: an intricate guitar line opens the album before a military snare drum and Vernon’s familiar layered army of voices come in. But it isn’t until the two and a half minute mark that the song lifts off thanks to pounding drums and a triumphant horn section that lets you know that yes, this is not a rehash of For Emma.
While that album felt very much like it was recorded in a cabin, Bon Iver, Bon Iver puts much more emphasis on production values and atmosphere. Instruments drift in and out of songs, and as a whole, the album feels if not quite other-worldly, at least somewhere calm and quiet. This is best shown on “Holocene”, where the fingerpicked guitar, light drums, and carefully arranged instruments surround a fantastic melody.
One of Bon Iver’s more distinct elements is Vernon’s approach to vocals and lyrics. Vernon stacks numerous falsettos on top of each other to form his own one man choir may not click with you right away (and sound odd on faster numbers, like “Towers”), but his harmonies are top-notch, and even with so many voices, he’s expressive. Vernon also uses his voice(s) as an instrument more than a, uh, voice; how he’s singing isn’t quite as important as what he’s singing. Not that Vernon’s lyrics are subpar, but they do have a tendency to be vague.
And in a way, vagueness haunts this album, especially some of the later songs. It’s the same problem I had with The King of Limbs earlier this year: the music is certainly pretty and well put together, but it also doesn’t go anywhere. “Hinnom, TX” is bad about this, and “Wash.” doesn’t do enough to justify the song’s five-minute run time. “Wash.” is too big for itself; the song is built around a simple piano loop, and other instruments enter, but there’s never any development or tension. As a result, there’s nothing to follow.
The atmospherics work on “Calgray”, but the album closes on a baffling note. “Lisbon, OH” borders unnecessary (imagine any “playing with my synth” interlude track you’ve ever heard), and “Beth/Rest” sounds like it was cut straight from 80’s soft-rock. That alone doesn’t sink the track, but the production is too dense and bloated; Vernon drowns in his own synth and sax sea.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a tough album to call. First of all, it’s a grower, there’s plenty to listen to, but it takes a few times to see how good the better tracks are. The sheer epic feeling of “Perth” and the hypnotizing beauty of “Holocene” put them above the rest of the album, but there are other enjoyable listens, too (particularly in the top half of the record). But at the same time, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is plagued by pacing issues, and not all of the experiments work or demand attention. Even so, there’s plenty of potential, three out of five stars.
tl;dr: With a little focus, Bon Iver, Bon Iver could have reached its full potential. 3/5.