Bon Iver trades in simplicity for production value

Justin Vernon has had a good couple of years. Three years ago, when he released For Emma, Forever Ago under the moniker Bon Iver, Vernon was viewed as a wounded soul, a man emerging from a year of solitude spent in the wilderness of Wisconsin. How things have changed.

This week saw his second effort as Bon Iver, with the release of Bon Iver on June 17, via Jagjaguwar.

If For Emma was an outpouring of a build up of Vernon’s emotional turmoil following a heartbreaking year, the self-titled effort is just the opposite. Since the release of For Emma, Vernon has released another Bon Iver EP, spawned two other projects (1980s-esque soft rock GAYNGS and a collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir) and collaborated with Kayne West on the rap mad genius’s comeback, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Bon Iver is musically the opposite of For Emma. Where the latter is unique and aurally attractive because of its minimalistic production value, the former is somewhere in between a Wilco record, with intricately layered sonic landscapes, and a post-Genesis Phil Collins record, with…well I think that one speaks for itself.

Justin Vernon returns with another Bon Iver album, Bon Iver, and a more intricate, polished sound. Photo courtesy http://userserve-ak.last.fm/

The album starts off with “Perth,” a quiet ballad that begins with Vernon’s all-too-familiar falsetto intermingling with a snare drum beat that sounds like it could have been played by your high school drum line.

The opening track is perhaps the most similar on the album, sound-wise, to For Emma. Vernon eases his listener into his new sound with the first half of “Perth,” creating a sense of familiarity and comfort, which he inevitably shatters with the song’s culmination. As the first track reaches a peak, a horn section, accompanied by layers of feedback and surprisingly heavy guitars, provide an introduction to the weaving instrumentals present through the rest of the album.

The next track, “Minnesota, WI” is soft and pretty, and features the innovative intertwining of a slide guitar, fuzzed out guitar and saxophone solo that brings to mind something you would hear coming out of the speakers at a supermarket. Vernon also treats his listeners to a Bon Iver rarity with this track, as he breaks the norm of his falsetto and sings in a deeper voice than on any of his previously recorded efforts. The contrast between this deeper, fuller voice and his well-established and recognizable falsetto creates a disparity that keeps the listener’s mind from dwelling too long on Vernon’s past efforts.

Batting clean up is “Towers.” I read in a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Vernon that this track is supposed to be about the University of Wisconsin dorm room where the artist supposedly lost his virginity. Well, listening to the track gives no indication that this is what the song is about. Like every other Bon Iver song, the lyrics are so cryptic that the listener has no choice but to ascribe their own meaning to Vernon’s lyrics. This may be the most attractive aspect of Vernon’s music; he is easy to identify with because his lyrics are so personal that every listener interprets his songs differently.

The second half of the record begins with “Wash.,” a quiet piano tinkling away behind another track of Vernon’s falsetto. This breaks away from the layered complexities that make up the rest of the tracks on the album, and is perhaps its most stripped down offering.

“Calgary” and “Beth/Rest” end the album, interposed by the brief instrumental, “Lisbon, OH,” and are both synth-heavy ballads that actually sound like they could have been produced by a member of Genesis (excluding Peter Gabriel). “Calgary” picks up in terms of sonic feedback in its second half. It is perhaps the most exciting track of the album and will easily translate into one of the better songs of Vernon’s live set.

The weak point of the album is without a doubt its closer, “Beth/Rest.” It has the slow, synthesizer feel of a song that would show up on the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie (not Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Uncle Buck). It never really picks up in any way, and leaves the listener hungry for a bigger, more emphatic finish. No one was expecting another “re: Stacks,” but if Vernon eased his listeners into his new sound through nine songs, shouldn’t the tenth be the final convincing blow that cements his new sound into the chasms of our crania?

Who am I kidding? I love John Hughes.

- Chris Gambon, MUSE Editor

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