Who is Bon Iver?
That's the question that his second, self-titled release seems to be asking. The simple answer is that Bon Iver is Justin Vernon. Vernon is the guy who famously packed up his shattered life in North Carolina, headed back home to a cabin in Wisconsin, and poured all his pain and loneliness into what would become 2008's surprise hit For Emma, Forever Ago. What stood out about that album, besides its stark emotional openness, was Vernon's otherworldly falsetto. It's an affect that on first listen sounds gorgeous and raw, but for this reviewer at least, those charms wore thin pretty quickly. As such, it’s a record that holds my highest respect; it's just not one that is revisited terribly often. So that's one answer to our question.
Another answer is that Bon Iver is not the actual personality of Justin Vernon. Instead it is simply a dumping ground for whatever he seems to be inspired by at the moment. Post Emma, Vernon released the EP Bloodbank, on which he experimented heavily with auto-tune, amongst other things. Again, you either loved it or you didn’t. Apparently Kanye West loved it though, because Vernon is featured running through the very same auto-tune acrobatics on West's fairly brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Taking the melody of Bloodbank’s “Woods” and morphing it into “Lost In The World”, the resultant song ended up sounding not like some weird, head scratching one off, but rather a very natural fit for the two artists musical sensibilities. Paradoxically, it also sounded nothing like Bon Iver at all, but that's that's the risk one takes when they throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. It's one (admirable) thing for an artist to throw out a bunch of ideas that are somewhere in the range of their wheelhouse. It is quite another for them to completely ignore what they've built before in favor of whatever whim they happen to be entertaining at the moment, and it is at this place that we find Justin Vernon on Bon Iver.
I hate to throw words like “brand” or “identity” out there when discussing music, but it's how we identify the things that mean something to us, so like it or not they apply in this context. Bon Iver is as lush, orchestrated, and mostly masterful as its predecessor was sparse. But despite, or maybe because of, that upping of the ante, it finds itself so stylistically different that it can be hard to determine who exactly it is that you’re listening to. As listeners we have an idea in our heads of what we expect from the artists we choose to pay attention to. It’s something that everyone does, and it can be a commercially deadly to any musician who attempts to stray too far outside that mold. Bon Iver definitely risks falling into this trap, but if you can think of the album in a slightly different context, then it not only makes more sense, it turns out to be infinitely more rewarding.
Bon Iver is best Peter Gabriel album released in almost 20 years.
Vernon and Gabriel swapped songs for Gabriel’s lackluster Scratch My Back, with Gabriel covering Emma’s “Flume” and Vernon returning the favor by covering “Come Talk To Me” off of Gabriel’s 1992 masterpiece Us. The point of influence is clear, and obvious. Let’s face it, what singer hasn’t been influenced by Gabriel over the past few decades? But very few, in fact I can’t think of one except Vernon, have set out to emulate Gabriel so completely that you have to wonder if the material being presented is simply well executed-idolatry; or if some alternate universe version of Gabriel is being channeled through Vernon to both confuse and astound our ears and minds. To be clear, this is a high complement and one that is well deserved, because unlike anyone else probably could, Justin Vernon pulls it off.
On the album’s opener “Perth”, Vernon borrows from what could easily be African spiritual chants, as he wraps his voice around what should be a guitar line given its influences. Instead what comes out is made up of everything but the kitchen sink, yet doesn’t feel messy in the least. It’s as if Vernon hit some universal note that no matter what is thrown at it, it will always ring true. It's grand, engaging and like nothing else on the album. Unsurprisingly, it also recalls the previously mentioned “Come Talk To Me”, the opening track of Us, in which achieves a similar effect in almost the very same way.
From there the album twists and turns its way through orchestral swells, lilting falsettos and yes, more auto-tuning. It reaches its most Gabriel-esque point on the track "Calgary" with a build up and chorus so perfectly Gabriel that it could have easily been an outtake, if not a single, from Us.
It's this kind of music nerd attention to detail that the album as a whole that makes the album far more engaging than For Emma, Forever Ago, even if no identity of who Bon Iver are as a band is really ever developed. And coming from a point where I simply didn’t care for Bon Iver after a few listens, I’m not exactly sure how I ended up here, but by stripping away that label of Bon Iver from the music and simply accepting it as “music”, I find myself not just liking the collection of songs, but sort of loving it. That is at least until the much-discussed final train wreck of a track that is “Beth / Rest”.
Justin Vernon, I ask you now, “What the f@#@!?” Seriously. “What.The F@#@.” Look, I loved The Karate Kid Part 2 as much as the next guy. For the ENTIRETY of the summer of 86, that soundtrack completely ruled my 14 year old face, and no song more-so than Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love." Hell, you could put it on right now and I'd probably sing along, because sadly not only do I know all of the words to that song, but I also know all the words to Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie”, Atlantic Starr’s “Secret Lovers” and goddamit, I know all the words to Starship’s “Sara”!
The point I’m trying to make here is that “Beth / Rest” belongs back in 1986. If it’s a joke, than it’s a majorly unfunny one that closes an otherwise excellent album with a splat. If it’s not, then Justin, Justin, Justin…sometimes it’s better that certain things stay in our heads. In all honesty, I sort of want to high five you for going all the way with it, because you did in fact create one of the best songs 1986 has ever heard! But it’s 2011 now, and those ideas and sounds have long been put to rest, and with good reason.
So who is Bon Iver? The verdict may still be out, but for now at least, he’s a guy/band who has crafted an album that manages to play as one of the—and I can’t believe I’m typing this—best collection of songs to be released this year. Despite its potentially derailing, let down of a closing track, and probably because of its worshiping at the altar of Gabriel vibe, Bon Iver is a like-it-or-not statement from an artist who seems content to go just about anywhere his muse will take him. Let’s just hope that next time he doesn’t find it to be Phil Collins, because I’m not sure the world could take, or needs, another No Jacket Required.