Bon Iver’s first album “For Emma, Forever Ago” is a tough act to follow, and his eponymous sophomore album is a testament to this fact.
“For Emma” was critically acclaimed because it was more a meditation that stemmed from Vernon’s voluntary isolation in northern Wisconsin than a collection of songs. “Bon Iver” takes an opposite approach, one that front man Vernon himself described as an “ambitious musical departure” from his previous work. Moving away from a single thematic and musical core, each track on “Bon Iver” represents a place and its particular feel. This structural organization is successful, save for a couple of missteps that render the album a noble attempt – and only that.
The album opens with “Perth,” a reflective piece that features Vernon’s familiar, ghostlike vocals. The soft drums, reminiscent of “Team,” are the first indicator of Bon Iver’s expansion to a full band. Although instrumentally denser, the quality of Bon Iver is retained – Vernon still mumbles his lyrics, drowning them in overdubbing and causing the listener to focus more on the music than the words themselves.
“Minnesota, WI” is another strong track that benefited from Bon Iver’s newfound ambitions. The use of an electric, modern sound layered on hillbilly guitar is innovative and fresh. Vernon’s use of his lower register on the track is a welcome departure from his frequent falsetto. Vernon further experiments with his voice in “Hinnom, TX,” and his use of range to differentiate between the moods of the places he explores on “Bon Iver” is an indicator of his openness to musical experimentation.
“Towers” is another accomplished piece that incorporates the old Bon Iver (whispered vocals, soft guitar) with some of the newer bells and whistles (such as the surprising but fitting violin). On the other hand, “Holocene” makes up for its plain melody and sparse instrumentation with its intriguing lyrics: “Someway baby, it’s a part of me, apart from me/You’re laying waste to Halloween.”
“Michicant,” with its flawless use of layering and harmony, is one of the strongest tracks in the album. It establishes a sense of narrative within the place it is describing – “I was unafraid/I was a boy/I was a tender age” – and advances the story in a way that complements the swells of the music.
However, by the time “Wash.” comes around, these spatial and territorial explorations are hazier. “Wash.,” despite the eerie piano riff, doesn’t really progress past that, and “Lisbon, OH,” and “Calgary” are directionless. Without a “Re: Stacks” to be building toward, some of these songs seem lost.
The last track, “Beth/Rest,” is more face plant than misstep and would be better used as a PSA for synthesizer abuse. It seems overeager and overambitious, as if all the instruments that were subtly used throughout the album were haphazardly thrown in at the end. The result is far from dynamite and finishes an otherwise sound album with an unimaginative synth ballad that conjures up a mental image of kids in mullets slow-dancing at homecoming.
Despite considerable efforts, even Bon Iver couldn’t escape the dreaded sophomore slump. “Bon Iver” contains some wonderful tracks, and, like any respectable second album, doesn’t simply try to recreate its predecessor. However, “Bon Iver” loses some of its magic when it tries too fiercely to tear away from its past.