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
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.