Bon Iver’s 2007 ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was a true one-off. Recorded in the (literal and figurative) wilderness of a break up, the tale of frontman Justin Vernon’s retreat into the wilderness of Wisconsin had the makings of a musical legend.
So what’s it like?
A strummed electric guitar, a ghostly echo of a voice and the gallop of military drums re-introduce us to the wastelands of Bon Iver-ville. “I’m tearing up/across your face…” trills Justin before his words become incomprehensible and we’re swallowed into waves of multi-tracked vocals and guitar reverb that call to mind the spidery textures of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Walk A Thin Line’. The song breaks out into a third act of clattering drums and saxophones. “I know all your stories,” he can be heard singing to the object of his disappointment at one point, but it’s clear from this opening shot we don’t know all of his.
Flowing straight into track two, Justin drops his falsetto for a lower voice and emotes over a bed of Talk Talk sounding synths and Colin Stetson’s saxophone omnipresent. “Never gonna break, never gonna break” he sings as a banjo is plucked and feedback flashes.
As the mood settles it’s clear that ‘Bon Iver’ is a stylistic U-turn from ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’s sparseness. Not quite “everything but the kitchen sink”, but proof for anyone who thought that Bon Iver was one guy holed up in a log cabin crying into his acoustic, they’re actually a band who like to cry into several instruments. And from the sounds of ‘Minnesota, WI’ that band might just be TV On The Radio.
…And now we’re back in familiar territory. A plaintive acoustic and what sounds like a xylophone combine as Justin sings a lament about an intimate moment that’s been pushed into complication (“You’re in Milwaukee/ Off your feet”). Two minutes in, we’re wrong footed as a drum roll kicks in, the saxophone peeks over the parapet and we drift into ambient/jazz territory. Although that sounds awful, it’s not. Honest.
Repeating the trick of ‘Holocene’, this is another slow burning track which, around the two minute mark, briefly goes into some sort of Mariachi-themed waltz before retreating into a soundscape of sax ‘n’ synth ‘n’ strumming. Also notable for an appearance from legendary pedal steel guitar player Greg Leisz.
“I wasn’t afraid, I was a boy, it was a tender age,” Justin sings to the familiar embrace of strummed guitar. Colin Stetson’s saxophone hangs around this song like a dour shadow. As we reach the album’s half-way point, it’s clear that if ‘For Emma…’ was drawn in charcoal, ‘Bon Iver’ is painted in moody pastel colours.
Feels less like a fully fledged track and more of a mood piece. It sees the return of the “deep voice” used on ‘Minnesota, WI’, and like that track the harmonies here reminiscent of TV On The Radio’s Tunde and Kyp. Additionally, with its sparsely plucked keyboard lines and splashes of feedback, the production touches are very Dave Sitek.
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In an album of haunted moments this is probably the most haunted one. This track builds in layers over a piano figure which is repeated through-out, mournful strings ebb in and out and ghostly voices waft through in the latter half, like they’re coming from another room. Spooky.
Although this was the first track to appear online, it wasn’t necessarily the most indicative of their new sound. One of the denser songs on the album, with traces of feedback which rolling over the layers of synthy melodiousness. We’re reminded of the smooth/sad 80s sound of The Blue Nile.
1.37 of ambience. There’s not much to say about this swift bit of guitar/keyboard noodling, except to say we need a breather before we get to….
Goodbye poverty porn, hello Runrig! Yes, this is a smooth jazz concoction has the unmistakable smell of the 80s about it (if it were a fragrance it’d be Brut aftershave) and which also sees the welcome return of Vernon’s vocoder.
It was never going to match the stark shock of ‘For Emma…’ but then arguably nothing ever was. The ambient, jazz-lite aspects of Bon Iver’s new sound won’t be to everyone’s tastes but there’s a gentle beauty to the whole thing and a batch of subtle surprises to be heard to those who want to take the time to hear them.