james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Genre Folk, Baroque Pop
Label Jagjaguwar
Producers Justin Vernon
bon iver ephemeric

When Bon Iver architect Justin Vernon cut himself off in a forest cabin for three months in order to record debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, he ensured that it would go down as a record as notorious for its mythology as its music. It was a tale that complemented the style of music well; sparse, falsetto laden folk musings, with surprisingly evocative lyrics from someone whose band and album names both stem from some really fairly droll wordplay.

The album was critically acclaimed, and Bon Iver became the biggest folk darling since Fleet Foxes, albeit without quite the same level of commercial success. His star has risen considerably since then by positive word of mouth and a bizarre collaboration with Kanye West, and he moves on to his eponymous sophomore effort with the burden of expectation upon him.

Some say that the second album is the most difficult one. From one angle there is the need to maintain the signature style that won over those key fans, and from the other there is the pressure to evolve and avoid accusations of staleness; few bands manage to break these rules and get away with it. Here Veron has managed to find the sweet spot in between these two contrasts.

Those who may have found his early work a little too low key and raw will appreciate Bon Iver’s new sound. Fuller instrumentalisation and lush soundscapes lend an extra panache to Vernon's rustic introspections. The result is something which sounds more sophisticated, yet still as subtly effecting as ever.

Lead single Calgary is the best example of how things have changed; a supremely polished throwback to late 80s new wave, shifting deftly between delicate acoustic lulling and some of the rockier guitar bits on the album. Similarly, opening track Perth takes a more fiery tone with clarion call and civil war style drums, contrasted against Vernon's lush vocals and reverb guitar harmonies.

Meanwhile, Towers stands as one of the traditionally folky songs, with clean picked guitar strums and classic progression before breaking away into a more fluid mid-section, backed by warm string overtures.

Minnesota, WI marks a change with its more groove-laden melodies meshed with dulcet banjo picks and soulful vocals. The name (as with one or two other songs) may spark some curiosity with an album full of tracks mostly named after real world locations, and here we have a strange mishmash of two states. It's actually strangely fitting for an album which fashions a rather dream-like state through its nearly indecipherable lyrics and distorted sound.

The one thing that all of these songs have in common is an almost infallible sense of good taste; there is rarely a bum note or a hackneyed refrain. Vernon shows marked restraint in the way he's crafted these songs, even the more adventurous ones. Often he resists the temptation to indulge in an extra flourish, or he'll build and build, only to play out the track in a sweet and satisfying manner. Indeed the album as a whole is a macrocosm of each carefully thought out bar that at just 10 tracks long, he ensures that it strikes a chord, but doesn't overstay its welcome.

Must Listen

Minnesota, WI



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