One constant in the ever-changing landscape of music is the fact that a great origin story is always a plus. It’s what propelled the best making-of documentary ever, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which wad made during the recording of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s what made Dr. Pepper give a free soda to every citizen if Guns ‘n’ Roses released Chinese Democracy by a certain date, due to the fact that it took 14 years to record.
And, indeed, it’s what makes Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, all that much more exciting. Spurned by a bad breakup, a bad band breakup, and down with a case of mono, he decided to retire to his father’s old hunting cabin with a guitar, a basic recording rig, and a few other things. He then produced For Emma, Forever Ago, easily one of the most insular records ever recorded. Then, through word of mouth, the album blew up: it received praise from the entire indie community, the hosts of NPR’s All Songs Considered proposed an “Iver Jar” for every time they brought up the album, he went on world tours with three of his bands (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir, and Gayngs), and, oh yeah, he recorded a few songs with Kanye West. No big deal, you know? Vernon was, for all intents and purposes, poised to never release another Bon Iver record again, leaving the world with a single, timeless artifact of what could have happened, had he not gotten to big for his beard. But that didn’t happen, and here we have a brand new record. The question is: does it compare?
One of the things that stands out immediately when you listen to Bon Iver is that Vernon didn’t bother springing for high fidelity this time around. This can be forgiven; For Emma‘s charm lay in the fact that, not only was it recorded in a cabin, it sounded like it was recorded in a cabin. This time, he recorded in an empty pool in an abandoned veterinarian clinic — because that’s not creepy at all. The difference, however, is that the tone of the record is much more lush, and feels less like an exercise in exorcising personal demons, and more a definite article of the power of a committed musician. You can tell where things divide once “Perth” springs to life. The marching drum beats that flood your ears 20 seconds in feel almost out of place, as though they got switched with the drum track for the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. The song is a beast that you wouldn’t have truly expected if you didn’t know how Vernon operated (here meaning “outlandishly”): it’s a tiny whirlwind of distorted guitar noise and Vienna Boy’s Choir wash, and it feels perfect.
The unique thing about Vernon about a folk songwriter is that he sings in a way that makes his words almost become meaningless. The first three times I listened to the record, I didn’t even bother trying to discern what he’s singing at any given time; I just let what he’s trying to say with how he sings the words guide me. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a little like Panda Bear’s Tomboy: you don’t know what the words are, because the feelings are the important part. Now that the hurt that birthed For Emma is gone, it’s almost as if his words aren’t as important as they were then which makes it rewarding to actually discern what he’s singing to you, especially when you pick up on the simplicity in every single line.
Certain things pop out after repeat listens that make the cool ride more worth it; if you pay enough attention on certain tracks (I noticed it on my third listen of “Holocene), there’s a perfect echo behind everything, one that is too soft to be faked, and it makes the whole song come alive. It’s the exact same thing on the clarity of the guitar tone on “Perth,” where you immediately feel sucked in from the first baby hook. Once Vernon’s voice springs to life in the background, you’re completely in his pocket, and that feeling becomes apparent once you notice yourself bobbing your head to the groove of “Minnesota, WI.” And that lasts… just shy of 40 minutes.
Bon Iver is the kind of album that begs to be heard on headphones, to catch every niuance of what Vernon has done with his baby. It’s a triumph of what one can do without abandoning the format entirely, much more Fleet Foxes than Iron & Wine. He’s decided to go in a exact opposite direction of the Volcano Choir record Unmap, avoid needless expansion, and play with only what was truly needed fo the vision. The result is that entire album feels like an absolute triumph of the heart of a songwriter.