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Sophomore albums are a tricky thing. Generally the artist gains notoriety for a particular sound and then fans are let down if the artist decides to stray from the original formula.
Bon Iver’s debut album, as incredible as it was, was truly unique. Justin Vernon recorded it alone, in a remote Wisconsin cabin. It was carried by the ambiance of that cabin, as well as the gorgeous falsetto of Justin Vernon, but not much else. It was sparse and beautiful, as moving as it was minimalistic. This also made it almost impossible to recreate.
Shift to 2011 and Bon Iver’s self titled sophomore album. This time Vernon recorded in studio built by him and his brother. The studio consisted of a converted swimming pool attached to a Veterinary office. This made the process not only a departure from how Justin Vernon worked, but as expected, it produced totally different results. However, in this case the results are different in the very best way possible.
“Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to write songs,” Vernon confessed to Rolling Stone magazine. “I couldn’t do it anymore with a guitar. It wasn’t happening.” And so Vernon was forced out of his comfort zone into new musical territory.
Beautifully crafted and layered ‘Bon Iver’ is filled with gorgeous synths, horns, percussion and of course guitar. The likes of which have been incorporated so perfectly it’s almost impossible to grasp on the first 5 or even 10 listens. Every song has a sense of place and as you notice with each song title Vernon made sure to let you know where but not necessarily what that place had to do with each song.
Take for example Album opener “Perth” which opens with a memorable guitar riff in perfect tone over a marching drum beat. We’re introduced once again to Vernon’s layered vocals as he bemoans “Still Alive for you love”. Horns arrive briefly accompanied with beautiful synths. The song ends in a fury and leaves you in an audible Bliss wondering how something which started so simple ever got from point A to point B.
Other stand outs include: ‘Minnisota, Wi’ and ‘Holocene’. The latter of which is built over a gorgeous electro-acoustic finger picked base. A song perfect in its simplicity and in its lyrics as Vernon laments: “you fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street….…and at once I knew I was not magnificent”.
Closer “Beth / Rest” sounds like an amazing long lost Genesis track with its 80s keys and sparse drum pads. This joins the Peter Gabriel-esque first single “Calgary” and “Hinnom, TX” as a trio of excellent synth-driven tracks that still retain Bon Iver’s sense of pacing and beauty. And “Wash.”, with its distant pianos and dramatic strings could very well be the most devastatingly beautiful track on the album.
Short of turning this into a track by track love fest I will finish by saying that I truly believe after a day of listening to this record that it’s as close to perfect as I think an album can get.
It’s mood, pacing, arrangements, lyrics and harmonies all add to its beauty.
And although Vernon may think he “was not magnificent” perhaps he can live with the fact that his latest album is.
Rating – 10 out of 10
Download these: The Entire album