Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
Not a single track on For Emma, Forever Ago, Wisconsin singer/songwriter Justin Vernon’s full-length debut as Bon Iver, had a double-bass pedal breakdown or effects-drenched military snare march. There were no blossoming sax wails or creamy electric guitar overdubs, no colossal piles of symphonic noise. Just simple acoustic reverence—guitar and voice joining in heartbreaking, almost spiritual uplift. The less-is-more approach made every strum, falsetto note, floorboard creak, or chilly inhalation count. It was an out-of-nowhere masterpiece with a killer backstory (“heartbroken former rocker retreats to isolated cabin, armed with only a guitar”), and it landed him not only critical adoration but also the respect of what seems like the entire music community—including some guy named Kanye West, with whom Vernon collaborated on last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Vernon is already becoming a legend on his own merits. But there’s a reason this new album is called Bon Iver. In the tradition of many previous self-titled musical landmarks, these 10 glorious new tracks represent a shift. In other words, Bon Iver is no longer Justin Vernon. This is officially a band, not a solo album tied together with a few stray outside overdubs. So while “Perth” creeps out of the gate, patiently unthawing a squiggled, fractured electric guitar pattern, it eventually explodes into a joyous full-band din of horns and percussion. “Holocene” is arguably the most beautiful Bon Iver track to date—which is really saying something—unfurling bright, fingerpicked 12-strings, guitar delay, and the blissful ache of pedal-steel whiz Greg Leisz.
Closer “Beth/Rest,” with its dated electric piano, ultra-slick guitar solo, wallpaper sax, and wide-eyed melody, could easily work as the moody score for a 1980s romantic-drama. Or a great lost Steve Winwood B-side. Either way, it’s majestic—brilliant if for nothing else than the fact that no other indie rocker on the planet would try out a sound this uncool. The fact that Vernon—and Bon Iver—pull it off is something else entirely. If For Emma was the sound of a slow-motion, tear-streaked roam through the forest, Bon Iver is floating, weightless, on a moonlit ocean, swallowed in glossy noise, almost at peace.