Album Review: Bon Iver

There are times when all of us long for an escape. We long to shut off the content-driven world in front of our face and get lost for awhile. The self-titled sophomore release album from Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon) provides such an opportunity. Bon Iver is a ‘headphones’ album, from the sweet distortion of the opening chords of “Perth,” to the for better or worse keyboard tones of “Beth/Rest.” It is a risk taking travel-log of a ride that proves to be a much brighter album than For Emma, Forever Ago, although less lyrically poignant and direct. Refrains like “Never gonna break” and “I can see for miles” are repeated with conviction, but lack the direct vulnerability of Justin’s earlier work. As such, Bon Iver feels more selfless than its predecessor.

The overemphasis of form over content is both this album’s greatest strength and weakness. There is a noticeable lack of the strong melodies found in the guttural strains of For Emma, Forever Ago. Bon Iver is less concerned with melody and more concerned with movement and the ambiance of the arrangements. Justin Vernon is not making any grand statements about the world around him, but it sure is pretty. And in a world bombarded by the violence of words, maybe that is as it should be. It is sublime to be confronted by a musical world concerned more about the lush landscape of the forest than the trees. The tasteful colors of the instrumental arrangements are what stand out about this release. Forget any expectations you make have about this album making a coherent lyrical statement. Expect the coherence to center around the ways in which Justin Vernon presents his tunes as impression’s of emotional landscapes and moods. It is a coherence of form among a wide variety of musical influences. The fruits of a postmodern ethos playing out beautifully in the mash up of sonic cultures.

The idea of travel could serve as a good metaphor for Bon Iver. Travel provides escape and distraction. The distraction of staying in flux, the distraction of new experiences, the escape provided by the assurance that life is a series of snapshots that can be bookended nicely and interpreted as beauty. The Bon Iver aesthetic is in fine form. Justin Vernon expands upon the definition of beauty he laid the foundation for in his previous work. If nothing else, the production value of this album is superb, the instrumentation so very tasteful, and the trademark falsetto harmonies never a distraction. The genius of Justin’s trademark vocals are that they serve so well as an ornament. The vocal stylings are the risk that paid off in For Emma, Forever Ago.

I am sure that much will be said about some of the musical risks that bleed from Bon Iver. There is no shortage of sonic influence stemming from the 80’s and 90’s. It’s obvious that Peter Gabriel, Bruce Hornsby, Phil Collins, and even David Sandborn have all left a musical stamp upon Justin’s sonic palette. Unashamedly so. And the lack of shame is kind of refreshing. A friend told me the day that the great thing about the music of Justin Vernon is that he simply has the gall to tell people what is cool. Amidst a hipster crowd perpetually chasing the “cool,” Justin still possesses a sincerity in his music that rises above being ironic or sarcastic. And it is because of this that he can get away with the unique risks that are warmly appealing to his audience. With that said, the overtly cheesy keyboards sounds of “Beth/Rest” and the presence of a saxophone are still hard to swallow for those of us still trying to recover from the 80’s.

The real appeal of this album is that it gives the listener permission to stop thinking for awhile and understand the world as a series of non-threatening impressionistic landscapes. This invitation is very appealing. It is the kind of musical escapism that bands like Sigur Ros provide the listener. That is the cultural significance of this album. The words and music don’t have to “mean” anything. It’s artistic statement can be found in its escapist beauty. This is atmospheric pop music at its core. Bands that tread these kinds of roads always risk falling into a sea of denial and sentimentality, but Bon Iver largely succeeds in treading the waters while staying afloat. It is wonderful music for those willing surface once the ride is over. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Justin strays from cynicism and prefers peace, to cold hard knowledge and deconstruction.

Bon Iver is Vicks vapor rub to the congested soul. It resonates with an emotional depth that not many current releases possess–all the while, leaving room for expansion. Justin Vernon has yet to hit his high note, but he is well on his way. I look forward to a forthcoming Bon Iver album that will meld both primitive melodic response and artfully crafted atmospheric landscapes. When these pieces fall into place Bon Iver will have come into fruition.