Coming off of the success of his self-released debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon, lead singer of Bon Iver, had a lot to live up to. Where he could have relied solely on the success of his debut, Vernon decided to evolve out of the cold, isolated feelings of the debut, and move into a world of sound that is optimistic yet grounded in reality, and colorful in its production.
The execution of tracks is quintessentially different. While in For Emma, Forever Ago the instrumentals were consistent and to the point, Bon Iver have produced a sound that is complex and varies multiple times within any given track. “Perth,” the opener, starts with drums that drive the song forward. Then come along Vernon’s vocals that push the forward. Then both come together for what is an extremely powerful moment within the opening track.
Bon Iver’s self-titled album is muddled in its beautiful and tragic compositions—the mixture of sounds and paces transforms what could have come off as another tragic album into something that has hints of hope.
Although grounded in reality, the guitars are precise and add a level that compliments the lyrics in ways that introduce overall depth of the record overall. They are precise and the intensity of the guitars alongside the vocals helps dictate the overall feeling of the album.
It is the range within the vocals that also stands out within this work. In songs like Minnesota, WI, Vernon’s ability to go from a somewhat unexpected low sound to the normal higher pitch makes a stunning difference in the delivery, and his ability to transition between the two sounds works seamlessly within the emotion Bon Iver projects. While the deeper vocals accentuate this very blunt meaning, the higher vocals emphasize the vulnerability of the subjects in the tracks.
Timing and precision are some of this album’s greatest qualities. While in moments that feel similar to the dark and cold Bon Iver of before, Vernon and company construct these little moments that capture everything the listener needs to understand about the emotions that are being expressed, without weighing the listener down.
The perfect example of this comes in “Wash.” As the track begins with a very simple piano intro followed by Vernon’s vocals, it then picks up additional orchestral elements that fade in and out in a flash. Yet, as they seem to linger in the background, they provide for one of the most piercing moments in the album. The violins provide a brief, striking whirlwind that emotes all of the anxiety that builds up until Vernon sings with appropriate punctuation, “We finally cry.”
Even in moments that seem completely unexpected, Bon Iver is able to tap into the dreary themes that won over so many earlier. In the final track “Beth/Rest,” all the emotional sadness and intensity of any Bon Iver track are dominated by this 80s sound filled with vocal correction, saxophone and funky synth. However, they are all twisted brilliantly to work well within the arsenal of Bon Iver’s catalogue.
If there was one thing that could have potentially got in the way of Vernon and company with their sophomore release, it would have to be the immense hype and anticipation following the critically acclaimed debut. In using the tragic tones of previous works and in expanding the musical arsenal of Bon Iver, Vernon has not only met the benchmark set by his first, but also raised it to a whole new level.
Bon Iver will come to Raleigh July 29 to tour with local band The Rosebuds, at the Raleigh Amphitheater.