Essential: Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver review

by Louis Clemo

Crafting a respectable and highly-regarded sequel to a piece of work that had already received universal acclaim is no easy task. There is the potential for a follow-up to be rushed, have a lack of, or too much innovation, and the dreaded case of nostalgia. However, every so often, you receive an incredible gem of a follow-up in the form of a second album. A Paul’s Boutique. A Paranoid. A Liquid Swords. And ten years ago, one arrived from Bon Iver when they released their second studio album – the self-titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

The story behind Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has gained a sort of mythical status over the years. The fable of a broken hearted individual retreating to a lonesome cabin in the woods to create an acclaimed album has been romanticised ever since its release in 2007. With its overtly poetic lyricism, combined with a rustic, homemade instrumentation and production underlain, For Emma became an instant classic in its own right. The album offered a sense of escapism – not only to the writer but to the listener. Surely, creating a well-received follow-up project to an album held in such high regard would be nigh-on impossible?

Clearly not if you are Justin Vernon. Bon Iver, Bon Iver somehow managed to deviate greatly from the sound of its predecessor, yet still maintained its charm and warmness. The instrumentation no longer possessed a bucolic emanation, but rather a satisfying fulfilment. There no longer existed the feeling of one lonesome man, but rather an extremely well coordinated group effort – with Vernon at the helm.

From the very start of Perth, this becomes evident. With its steadily progressing emotion and rolling, almost militaristic rhythmic elements, the track provides an immediate introduction to the previous listener of Bon Iver as to how the sound has overcome the challenge of variety that plagues oh-so-many acts. There is more going on, sure, but it’s not cumbersome or overwhelming. Rather, the contrary, it is this newfound variety of sound that allows Vernon’s ever-poetic lyricism to gain the backing it deserves. If you compare the personnel notes between the two works, you can also see that For Emma, Forever Ago only had a handful of instruments used, with trumpet and trombone only appearing on For Emma. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, on the other hand, deploys a mass array of instruments, electric and acoustic, synthetic and analog, performed by twelve different individuals, along with production being handled by five instead of two.

This breath of fresh production is seen more the further you dive into the album, also benefiting the tracks with simplistic instrumentation more typical to previous Bon Iver works such as Holocene and Michicant. What this increase in personnel ultimately provided was a fuller, more realised sonic experience that Vernon wished for in his art. Due to this newly found musical freedom, Vernon wrote tremendous pieces for the album. Towers is a particular highlight. Featuring his soothing falsetto vocals, Vernon and his team, primarily arranger, Rob Moose, crafted an astoundingly beautiful horn-powered mid-track breakdown, which is just as breathtaking to me today as it was the first time I heard it all those years ago.

A year before the release of this album, Vernon worked on a number of high profile projects – the biggest involving working with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Work on this album shot Vernon and Bon Iver into the limelight, as the album was a massive commercial and critical success. While For Emma, Forever Ago was certainly a critical success, it saw a tiny fraction as to how the follow-up performed commercially. Due to this newly found mainstream fame, not only did Vernon see his album high up in the US Album Charts, but also found himself and his band becoming the recipient of the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album awards at the Grammys. Combining all of this success gave Bon Iver a Platinum-selling record in the USA, and one most deserving of such an honour.

As I trail towards the conclusion of this piece, I have to mention Beth/Rest – even if on a solely personal level. Arguably the most deviated piece of Bon Iver’s at the time, Beth/Rest polarised critics upon its initial release, with some calling the piece ‘cheesy’ and ‘jarring’. But I completely disagree. Beth/Rest is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most unexpected conclusions to an album I and many others have ever heard. The grandiosity of the seven tracks that came before it and its introduction in Lisbon, OH have been put aside for a soothing, gorgeous piece akin to love themes found scattered throughout 1980s cinema. This final track sent a message. Justin Vernon would not allow himself to be constrained by the mundane expectations that seem to go hand in hand with an artist’s discography; ‘more of the same please’. By allowing himself to craft such a track, with it’s Blade Runner-esque saxophonics and classic soft rock guitar solo, it gave audiences a glimpse of the unpredictability of Bon Iver.

This unpredictability is what Bon Iver has been consistent with since 2007. Since the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the two albums released since have been wildly different from each other, and in their own right are critically and commercially successful. The first time I listened to the music of Bon Iver was around 2012. Nine years later, and it has been one of the few constants in my life. Year in, year out, I know that Bon Iver will be an artist that takes up a decent portion of the following 365 days. While the music that follows will change and evolve, being just as stunningly crafted as all the other albums that have been released, my rose-tinted, nostalgia-biased glasses will likely always point to Bon Iver, Bon Iver as the one. I am happy to admit that.

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