When NME feels a bit down we like to phone home, commune with [a]Leonard Cohen[/a] or weep vengefully into our ex’s Facebook profile. If we’ve yet to work through our troubles by beating a retreat to the frozen wilds of Wisconsin to pen our terrific solo debut, that’s because we’re not Justin Vernon. The sojourn in his father’s cabin that birthed ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ is by now the stuff of legend. The album was a runaway success, but Vernon’s fairy story also begged a question: where does the man whose success was forged in solitude’s wintriest depths go when he can’t move for admirers?
Vernon has reportedly been struggling with this question of whether you have to suffer for your art on his second album. Worse still, he came up against a nasty case of writer’s block. With his beanie crown in danger of slipping, his answer was to experiment with sonic textures, constructing songs around the sounds he liked best. It’s an approach that works both for and against ‘Bon Iver’, his ravishing follow-up. Opener ‘Perth’ is an odd portmanteau of sounds – softly spiralling guitar, trumpet and explosive drums – that shouldn’t really hang together as a song, but which linger like cannon smoke at sea. Vernon called it his “civil war-sounding heavy metal song”, which sounds about right. ‘Minnesota, WI’ is cut from similarly wandering cloth, pedal steel, keys and sax adding creamy vibes to Vernon’s defiant assertion that he’s “never gonna break”.
‘Holocene’ offers more evidence that Vernon is finally coming in from the cold, his admission that, “you fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street” paving the way for placid revelation: “I can see for miles and miles and miles”. It moves from crystal acoustics to a string-laden finale that evokes the first trembling shoots of spring – beautiful stuff – while ‘Towers’ inches closer to the anthemic territory of ‘Flume’ and ‘Skinny Love’.
There are departures that devotees might struggle with: ‘Calgary’ puts smooth on the menu with pious ’80s keys and drums like distant thunder. It’s actually great, but still more contentious is ‘Beth/Rest’, a widdly, sax-bothering, windswept ballad that sounds like Tom Cruise looking sad in the ’80s. But something is always left behind when you move on, and those looking for the raw catharsis of ‘For Emma…’ will need to cop their misery fix elsewhere – ‘Bon Iver’ is the sound of a man making peace with the world, saxophones and all.