Bon Iver - Bon Iver

by Aliki Varsamides Rating:9.5 Release Date:2011-06-20

I have to say it was slightly intimidating reviewing Bon Iver's second self titled album. How could Justin Vernon ever follow up such a compelling, raw, unashamedly stripped album such as 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago? With such a specific and devastating story as it's background, all of his guilt, heartache, longing and loss from years of pent up personal trouble leading to real hibernation as winter approached, the woods of Wisconsin his only company for three months. There, his tangled mind was set free on a vocal path that has evolved fluidly to the next album, the end result a mysteriously affecting falsetto encompassing ten perfectly panoramic songs, with a whole new worldliness attached, the icicles of winter have passed and we're slowly moving in to a new, more hopeful phase.

Right from the beginning the feeling of Bon Iver is one of a new connectedness to the environment, and what it feels like to be among the living once more. From the opener 'Perth', Vernon is purging his memories from his consciousness: "So I'm ridding all your stories/ What I know, what it is, is pouring - wire it up!" It's rather difficult to say what this album is actually about; unlike For Emma, Forever Ago, the lyrics are much more fragmented and impossible to decipher, yet somehow the meaning is unblurred.

Bon Iver was recorded in his hometown of Eau Claire, in rural Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The recording space constructed over a defunct pool with a remodelled veterinarian's clinic attached, purchased with his brother in late 2008, is called April Base Studios. The album, a three year process, was written and recorded in between touring For Emma, with the new studio providing a solid base in which to record with the rest of the band, as we musn't forget that although Justin Vernon IS Bon Iver (misspelled on purpose), there are other musical contributors which make up the fabric of Bon Iver, such as the horns of C.J. Camerieri (Rufus Wainright, Sufjan Stevens), Colin Stetson's saxophone (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire), and the pedal steel of Greg Leisz, along with Bon Iver regulars Sean Carey, Mike Noyce, Matt McCaughan on vocals, drums and production, with added strings from Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, The National).

The feeling of winter and it's associated environment is still retained on this album, with various locations (some made up, some real, others a hybrid) serving as the song titles. On 'Hinnom, TX' Vernon talks of wanting to escape a past, taking inspiration from Hinnom in Jerusalem, a place to bury strangers, and from a song by Lucinda Williams, 'Fruits of My Labour'. The Texas addition, he says, "... is a place to bury the stranger in yourself, a place to bury past selves".

The pleading 'Calgary' is a song about not knowing what's coming next, or who's coming next. Vernon explains that "... it's a hopeful song, kind of like a wedding vow song for someone you've never met. It's saying 'Look, if I do end up running into you along the line, I don't know who you are, but I feel like there's someone out there, in whatever sense of true love I still believe in after all the shit I've been through', it's inviting that mystery in to your life and believing in it." As he sings, "Don't you cherish me to sleep/ I was only for to die beside/ Oh, the demons come, they can subside."

'Holocene', the standout song on the album, sounds very much like 2006's EP Hazelton, and reflects the passing of time and where we were when significant things in our lives happened to us, realising that we are part of something so much bigger than we realise: "And at once I knew I was not magnificent/ High above the highway aisle/ Jagged vacance/ thick with ice/ I could see for miles, miles, miles"; the mess and fog of our minds clearing like the horizon in view. 'Towers', incredibly sweet and uplifting, talks of a fairytale love "for the love I'd fallen on/ in the swampy August dawn"; him relying on her mending his heart "when the onus is not all your own/ when you're up for it before you've grown"; her lacking the experience he has, with it all later falling apart, and the realisation of his heaviness bringing her down: "from the love comes the burning young/ from the liver, your sweating tongue". He will never let her go "out the hollows where the swallow nests" - swallows being symbols of hope, his love supporting her even if this is not returned to him.

'Minnesota, WI', on a very close listen, is possibly the most chilling and sincere of the album's songs: "Storing up the clues, and its sullen blue bruised through by showing", with "never gona break" sung repeatedly and chant-like, until the meaning is gutteral and understood; "Swallows swelling for the beams", appearing again, hoping for a new restoration of the soul. 'Wash', is quietly heartbreaking, all piano and strings, possibly a reflection on his time in isiolation and on the slow death of his relationship: "We finally cry/ All been living alone, where the ice snap and the hold clast are known/ All been living alone where the cracks at in the low part of the stoning". The final song, 'Beth/Rest' is allegedly about the death of a dear, close friend, gone too soon. The sound is a marked difference to the rest of the album, autotune blended seamlessy with acoustic instruments, sounding more 80s synth than we're used to, but with Vernon's voice, it just works: "I ain't living in the dark no more/ It's not a promise/ I'm just gonna call it."

Bon Iver's high, soft songwriting voice is coming from the same place, with the unmistakably epic orchestral sound we have come to know and fall in love with, which he created on For Emma. The seasons have since passed, winter has faded, although not completely. The haunting regret is still there, but now the horizon has opened up and Bon Iver is walking out from amongst the woods, the outlook becoming connected and beautiful, a perfect full circle - just be sure you take time to enjoy the view.

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