It is said that an artist has their whole life to write their first album, and perhaps this is no truer than for Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Breathed to life during a self-enforced period of isolation in a cabin in the woods, the record was a culmination of everything that had occurred in Justin Vernon’s life up until that point. All of us who had ever felt like escaping from our own circumstances could identify with his story of personal withdrawal in response to broken love. Henceforth known as the man who poured out his heart with an acoustic guitar in a cabin, Vernon was never going to have the capacity to sustain that image. His sophomore album would need a new story, or simply be magnificent enough to distract listeners from connecting it to a legend, since For Emma was inherently tied to its own.
With Vernon having revealed that his previous song-writing method of sitting down with a guitar was now inefficacious, the new record is awash with depth. Subtle, whispering layers emerge out of the music when one least expects it, as bicycle bells, perfectly-executed guitar licks and low saxophone whistles step into sight before slinking back into the shadows. The most noticeable of these sonic coatings is his voice, which transcends the mere act of singing and becomes another instrument, similar to Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós. However, while his falsetto is a defining feature of his sound, Vernon doesn’t shy away from employing a lower register. This is best put to effect on second track Minnesota, WI, in which deep, brooding verses are juxtaposed with an upper-register insistence that he’s ‘Never gonna break.’
Indeed, it seems that there are certain aspects of the first LP from which Vernon is reluctant to break away. Despite the lush, organic feel of the album cover, he maintains his partiality for icy imagery, exemplified by the lines, ‘And the frost took up the eyes,’ and ‘jagged vacance, thick with ice,’ from Michicant and Holocene respectively. There is also the underlying motif of place, consistent with For Emma, which Vernon claimed was as much about a place as a person. Each new song here also represents a location, with Vernon clearly still keen on the idea of using music as a means of escaping the world, and there is more than enough going on in each of these tracks to allow listeners to do just this.
Broad are the horizons to which this record travels, and there are fleeting moments at which one is reminded of other artists. Unexpectedly, Sufjan Stevens-inspired trumpets emerge in Hinnom, TX, and a Bright Eyes-esque end-of-chorus cadence abruptly swerves Towers back to its original path. Even in the track that has already provoked much incredulity among listeners, the closer Beth/Rest, Vernon draws upon the work of 80’s pop artists like Phil Collins. It is the audacity with which he utilises the vintage clanging-keyboard sound that ensures that this huge stride off the beaten track actually works. But any mention of another artist in relation to this album feels akin to a form of sacrilege; no other musician could ever produce anything even close to this record, and Vernon’s insistence that the album be known as Bon Iver, Bon Iver only seems to reinforce this.
‘Oh the demons come, they can subside,’ sings Vernon in the final line of Calgary, after an exquisite climax has died down. His assuring tone is rooted in his personal experience; most listeners are aware of his battles, and some use his music to assist themselves in their own. One gets the sense that he has finally quelled the demons of his past, and is now able to roam the vast landscapes of his mind uninhibited. For an album that begins with Perth (birth) and ends with Beth (death), Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a perfect reflection of subtle introspection, painted with the many colours of Justin Vernon’s musical palette.