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Wisconsin artist takes 
music world by storm

By STEVEN SNYDER -  TimeOut Film Critic

June 16, 2011

 
Itís not every day that The New York Times magazine extols the virtues of northwestern Wisconsin, or that Vanity Fair publishes a photo gallery of a music star lounging in the backwoods of Eau Claire.

But then again, little about Justin Vernon is typical.

In 2007, an album started leaking across the Web - a dark, moody, hypnotic bit of neo-folk that, legend said, had been crafted note by note in a snowbound Wisconsin cabin. That album was "For Emma, Forever Ago," and it was written by Vernon, an Eau Claire native. The album was not set to be released until 2008, but the hugely influential Pitchfork.com named the 2007 online leak one of the best albums of the year. By the time the album was released, Vernonís band, Bon Iver, was already a cult sensation.

What set that first album apart was its sparseness. Floating on the breeze, blending singer-songwriter soul guitar with meticulous high-tech auto-tune effects, Bon Iver stood out instantly for the quality of Vernonís voice - a gorgeous, whispery falsetto - and the haunting crispness of the sound.

Now, after collaborating with the likes of Kanye West on his most recent record, Vernon is back. And the music world is watching closely. In his new record "Bon Iver, Bon Iver," which hits record stores Tuesday, we find a far more mainstream and meticulous creation. Where "For Emma" felt like a mystical aberration, "Bon Iver" feels like a magical burst of clarity.

Incorporating a nine-piece band, amping up the horns, rhythms and song arcs, "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" still has the fleeting, tepid feel of twilight. There is still an undulating sensation of a young man finding and grappling his way. But whereas his debut took place at sunset, on the last day of autumn, thereís the sense here of a spring sunrise soaked in hope.

The tracks on this album point to destinations - "Perth," "Minnesota, WI," "Towers" (referring to the student dorms on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student campus), "Calgary," etc. - and itís reasonable to think that these are places Bon Iver toured during their first outing, and that each song has some bearing on the awakening of a musical career.

From the beginning of "Perth," one can sense the fusing of old Bon Iver with new. Faint echos of a humming chorus rise and dissipate, just as a snare drum slowly snaps to attention, and the bass, horns and electric guitars swell. Itís an entirely new sound for the group, more upbeat and declarative, but that doesnít mean "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" is all happy. The song "Holocene" is fleeting and nostalgic, the track "Calgary" is almost hymn-like at the outset.

In fact, the complexity of the album can be found in "Calgary," which winds its way from hesitant harmonies to a soaring frenzy of electronic beats and full-throated, screaming vocals. Thereís a focus on story arcs here that was missing from "For Emma," and the result is a tapestry so complex and daring that each and every time one approaches the album, the songs seem to expand and extend, reaching beyond their frameworks.

This is challenging, gorgeous, emotive music, sung passionately and produced meticulously. It envelops the listeners in its tortured triumphs, while leading them down a never-ending spiral of new discoveries. This is pop music at its most refined, and in Justin Vernon, we see something of a musical visionary just warming up.

E-mail: snyderreviews@hotmail.com