Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

To be perfectly honest, I didn't have high hopes for Mr. Vernon's sophomore album. I adored For Emma, Forever Ago when it came out of nowhere nearly three years ago, but its circumstances seemed a little too trite to be much more than lightning in a bottle for some schlubby guy. I mean, if breaking up with a steady girlfriend, contracting mono and moving to a secluded Wisconsin cabin in the dead of winter isn't enough to stir up somber feelings in a man, I don't know what is. It's the hipster perfect storm. At this point, everything he does is preceded by his 'legend', including this review. Huge industry names jumped on his bandwagon in recent months, but apart from sampling his back catalog, I didn't hear anything that convinced me he could avert a precipitous fall from grace.

Ladies and Gentlemen, might I present Exhibit 546983 in the case of Hipster Elite Backlash vs. Shut Your Goddamn Mouth For Two Seconds. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (yes that's the title), is fantastic. It is tender and gorgeous in the same way For Emma was, but considerably more adventurous, as Vernon has an entire band at his disposal this time around. The brilliant Colin Stetson lends his brusque saxophone, Sean Carey (fresh off his own album) handles the drums gracefully, making even the most jarring sounds feel natural. The most interesting wrinkle on Bon Iver, Bon Iver is what Vernon has done with his lyrics. Even with befuddling titles like Flume and Re:stacks on For Emma, the subject matter and lyrics themselves were clear and the songs themselves drew their power from it (See: skinny love). On this album, 6 of the 10 songs are geographical locales (though Wash. is a tossup), and the lyrics aren't any more helpful, leaving two possible conclusions. Either he's tired of people singing along with every song and wants to throw the legion of teens a curveball (doubtful), or he's decided to make art fit the sound rather than vice versa. That's not to say he's stringing along non sequitors, but 'ramble in the roots, had the marvel, moved the proof be kneeled fine’s/glowing storing up the clues, it had its sullen blue bruised through by showing' doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. And these aren't translations by some tone deaf fan, these are Vernon's own lyrics he shared on his website. 

So why is this album such a colossal triumph? Because despite the misdirection and new hats on display, this album shares the warm core of its predecessor. Because for every nonsensical line, there's a nugget that stops you in your tracks and feels like an epiphany. 'Holocene' is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The first verse is a cypher, but from within this fog you hear Justin sing '...and at once I knew I was not magnificent' and the chills are unavoidable. Throughout this album, fleeting lines like this will snag your attention, before the song submerges into shadows again, but as you listen again and again, you find yourself speaking Vernon's language, and every line gains the gravitas of the first ones that caught your ear. It is intoxicating in the purest sense and now I sing along to every 'sound', whether I know the words or not.   

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