Rarely does a record demand our undivided attention, especially in today's uncontrollable technology clusterfuck, when iPods and car radios have replaced home components and stereo setups, and audio "quality" is a luxury instead of the norm. When is the last time the average person sat down to "listen to a record", with friends or alone, without it being some sort of secondary function to something else? The world is so saturated with sound married to images, the record has forgotten how to stand alone. Justin Vernon knows something about isolation, being the stereotypical "guy alone in the cabin in the woods with the sad music" (he more or less spawned the tropes most recent iteration) with his debut. And while that record was quiet, it didn't have to work too hard to command ears, the raw emotion was enough to leave most people unnerved and affected. But a sophomore effort couldn't be so pigeonholed, especially with Vernon's now iconic falsetto at the helm, commanding a ship much bigger than a midwestern blizzard and a lost love catered to hipsters/music nerds. This guy provided a track for a Kanye West banger for chrissakes (the FESTIVAL CLOSER, according to Mr. West). The stakes are pretty high here. People are paying attention, beyond readers of Pitchfork and All Songs Considered.
By now, if you're a music fan, you probably already heard this record. And you already know, Bon Iver
is an album of complete thoughts, beautiful poetic wordplay over an ocean of turbulent chords (lyric example: "armour let it through, brought the arboretic truth you kept posing" Just wow). Vernon described it as the spring to For Emma
's summer, and endless outlets have described it in waves of adjectives and run-on sentences worthy of a Henry James novel. Considering the material, it makes sense. Vernon's lyrics are stand-alone free-form poetry that sticks in the mouth when read aloud, but the arrangements, from percussive noise to melodic cacophony, are top notch. Highlighting too many specific moments of elation would spoil the joy of discovering them for the first time. Little epiphanies make this record magical.
It goes without saying that this record deserves undivided engagement, but it may be the only way to truly connect with the sprawling epoch, and many will miss the experience due to music consumption habit. The first listen with headphones and closed eyes is entirely separate from speakers while looking at/working on something else. In the car, it's somewhat lost. On iPod earbuds walking in the streets, it's lost entirely. That isn't to say these aren't perfectly viable ways of casually listening, but Bon Iver
deserves at least one focused pass, to allow your brain to fill in the blanks created by multitasking and other distractions.
The songs are constructed like a skyscraper, piece by piece until it touches the clouds. The guitar lick from "Perth" is a near-perfect double-edged sword, simple in execution, but already massive in notoriety. The motif already lives in infamy. The use of percussive elements underneath the cacophony is exciting. This "quiet loudness" pops up all over the place, the booms of "Minnesota, WI" and the peaks of "Calgary", a slow-builder that adds in elements like a stewing pot of soup, until it boils and simmers with Vernon's bridges "So it's storming on the lake/little waves our bodies break". I'd recommend at least one complete listen while reading along with the lyrics in front of you
— it's truly worth it. Can't say the same for anything else I've heard recently.
The somewhat panned "Beth/Rest" closes the collection out, and while many see faux-eighties cheesy nostalgia and nothing else, the swill of throwback mixed with the constantly incredible lyrics is actually quite a striking finish when sitting atop the mountain of achievement that precedes it, simultaneously risky and rewarding to change gears without warning AGAIN at the end of a tricky sophomore effort. It's as if Vernon is letting his unadulterated, perhaps even happy influences take the spotlight, over the quiet, submissive music that made him famous. "It's an axiom", his final words, no longer needs to apply to the theory of the Bon Iver project being artistically viable in the long term. Vernon keeps his emotionally raw core, but by surrounding it with sound, has successfully evolved into something bigger.