Sufjan Stevens said he was going to write an album about every state in America, but gave up on the job after just two. Justin Vernon started off with just his broken heart, in the Wisconsin hunting cabin his father built. Four years later, he’s ventured as far as ten geographical and temporal fragments, each captured in songs recorded in a converted veterinarian clinic.
It sounds like even hanging out with Kanye West in Hawaii couldn’t restore his self-confidence. “And at once I knew I was not magnificent,” he proclaims over a peculiarly sketchy arrangement in “Holocene”. Throughout the album, ragged hollowbody guitars sketch faint semblances of chords; clattering percussion drifts in and out of the mix, adding colour and, occasionally, rhythm. For Emma, Forever Ago may have been minimalist in its instrumentation, but it was also tethered to the ground in its strumming regularity. By contrast, Bon Iver floats between disparate genres and proportions in the space of a three- or four-minute anti-pop songs. In the case of “Holocene”, an elegant cascade of acoustic guitar, backed by a lonesome brass drone, suddenly cedes to faint entrails of saxophone, which are in turn interrupted by, and forced to rise to the challenge of, a brief crescendo of drums, which weaves between the two channels.
Some songs are named after recognisable places, only muddied up, as if they’ve been expelled from a dying typewriter. No such sense of accident in the lyrics, which are lexically sound but defy easy parsing, so oblique and antiquated are some of the words Vernon chooses. In “Michicant”, he gives us “melic in the naked”: the kind of lyric that invites the listener to reach for the dictionary. In another era, we used to laugh at Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta, for spitting out a thesaurus every time he reached for the microphone; Vernon is more caring and considerate of his vocabulary. The song in question proceeds in stately fashion, with a cabasa infrequently breaking through mellifluously strummed guitar and serene meanderings on woodwind and brass. Bon Iver is less the work of one man, or indeed a band, and more the collective endeavour of lauded session musicians, and an ethereal gloved hand which sprinkles magic production dust to make reasonably challenging music coalesce, in spite of a dearth of dynamic progression.
A track later, he re-imagines the Biblical figure Hinnom, whose son begat a valley named Gehenna, as a place in modern-day Texas. “Hinnom, TX” splurges out of its fictional geography with filtered piano reminiscent in texture and construction of the arrangement in the Spoon song, “The Ghost of You Lingers“. In the middle of the mix, and in an oddly low register, Vernon booms rather than sings, competing with occasional pulses of sub-bass tones. Atop this lyrical poetry, a multi-tracked falsetto choir of Vernon’s invention packs in opposing non sequiturs. And then, in typically obtuse fashion, the song ebbs away into white space.
More than anything, you can hear the afterglow of Unmap, the album Vernon performed on as part of Volcano Choir. With their abstract soundscapes punctuated by an otherworldly mass of stacked vocals, sometimes warped in extremis by studio fiddling, both albums suggest a leakage of digital signals into the pastoral world. On “Calgary“, which was previewed a few months ago, Bon Iver beam in a wedding hymn from the end of the universe, with synthesised approximations of church organs undercut by spacey drumming, which then give way to widescreen guitars. This kind of fleeting, gentle experimentation recalls Talk Talk circa Spirit of Eden, and does, I suppose, suggest a greater assuredness on the part of the songs’ creator. Even if, lyrically, Vernon is still battling demons of the past in his own inscrutable way, the fluid, shifting quality of the music is that of a more confident songwriter, stretching out from the limited palette he previously exploited.
It is another of Vernon’s side projects which informs the album’s strangest, most jarring song. The closer, “Beth/Rest”, was described by its writer as “the part where you pick up your joint and re-light it”, which offers an intriguing proposition as to how he likes to listen to Magic FM. Somehow, he invokes the worst excesses of 1980s soft rock—onanistic guitar solo, gated drums, New Age piano preset—and gets away with it. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, or hate it so much that I would want to re-listen to the nine tracks which precede it. You have to make a pretty special album to earn the right to that kind of self-indulgence—or it could be the case that, to Vernon, as he suggests in interviews, there is nothing embarrassing about the kind of music “Beth/Rest” dredges up. That would certainly explain his unabashed involvement with Gayngs, a soft rock outfit whose MO was to write every song in the spirit of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love“.
It is in no way surprising that the follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago is so different. That album was a product of circumstance, which obscured the diverse influences its creator would later cherry-pick on his ancillary excursions—Gayngs, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Volcano Choir. This time round, he’s given a truer account of his self, which, to me, seems more conflicted than ever. The one constant is his vocals, which are a revelation. We knew he had quite a set of pipes, of course, but the vocal arrangements on Bon Iver are sublime, and break away from our traditional expectations of harmony. The closest equivalent, I suppose, is James Blake, who takes a more digital approach to achieve the same ends; both artists turn their slightly granular tones to their advantage, at times sounding like harmoniums rather than humans. Vernon is more sparing with his use of technology, but when he does reach for the computer, it’s devastating. If you were floored by “Woods“, you’ll practically melt at some of the more outré moments on Bon Iver.
All this verbiage, and yet I still confess to be not wholly convinced by this album. Perhaps it is the distance Bon Iver create between creator and audience: there is certainly less on display here for the listener to be hooked in by. So translucent are the washes of colour on this album, that they are overpowered by the strength of the watercolour-and-collage artwork. When I scour my library for a superior attempt at reining in such a rich tapestry of sonics and genres, I alight upon Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma, which sounds bombastic but not arrogant. A very different set of influences pervade Bon Iver, to be sure, but it presents the same challenge to the sculptor and, in this instance, on too many occasions, something doesn’t connect, or the song will simply peter out into the ether.
A hard album to fall in love with, then.