Justin Vernon has come a long way in three years. That's not to imply there was anything unsatisfying about For Emma, Forever Ago. That album is undeniably mighty. And now, in contrast to Bon Iver, that first album feels like the solemn, sweet build toward something massive. The acoustic calm before the electric storm. Though I'm reluctant to call Bon Iver some kind of electric breakthrough. It's not. It's a reasonable progression. It's poppy and powerful. Loaded with grinding, thumping energy. There are moments when it feels as if a folk guitarist and a small brass band have crashed into a busy dance club. But never, NEVER! to disastrous effect. The truth is, and if you've already heard this dozens of times over the 2 months that the album was floating around the internet due to leakage stay with me, Bon Iver is phenomenal. Every ambitious rock element Justin Vernon plays with is exceptionally done. Every soft note of lament or ballad is perfect. The lyrics are heart-plucking, tear-jerking and foot-tapping, and at times all three at once. This is as lush an album as I've listened to all year. And it's Bon Iver, a band whose name pronunciation has caused some controversy on the It's A Thing! podcast, so ultimately, this is built to satisfy.
"Perth" is your holy-shit-really!? moment to start the album. It's a track so powerful, big and energized that it's nearly unexpected. I want to take a little aside real quick... Justin Vernon is a busy man. In the three years since For Emma..., he has created an EP with Bon Iver, collaborated with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted etc., churned out an exceptional album with Volcano Choir called Unmap, and recorded a full album with GAYNGS. During all of that, he also composed this album. This beautiful fucking wonderful album that makes you cry and jump and sing and cry a little more. If I had a nickel for each time Justin Vernon has done something prolific, I'd be heavy enough for the mob to kill me without the cement shoes. Anyway, "Perth" is just so incredibly epic. And when it ends, the album tapers down into a gentle plucking guitar that reloads our hearts and ears for a more delicate "Minnesota, WI." Some of the greatest beauty comes in the form of the haunting "Holocene," a sad song about reminiscing and learning to see beyond the past. The gorgeous call "I can see for miles, miles, miles" bring a tear to my eye just as it holds a cache of golden catchiness. It's a song that demonstrates so greatly how much Justin Vernon know about quality song writing. The careful rattling snare and fluttering horns mixed into the background just seem to fall like fresh snow. It doesn't matter that it's June, nearly July. It's a mood and an emotion and a world unto its own.
"Towers" is wonderful too! Another gentle track that gives way to the casual waltz of "Michicant" where bike bells and echoing, smooth drums fill in the back beat. The build and the growth in this short track is nothing short of admirable. "Hinnom, TX" has that '80s era synth warble and demonstrates again the vocal range Vernon possesses. His throatier, non-falsetto, feels almost like a TV On The Radio track. And you may even pick up a tiny bit of Sufjan Stevens in the arrangement. Going back, it's just amazing what Justin Vernon can come up with. From every cover he has put his own mark upon, including the Bonnie Raitt medley from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to his Feist cover, he is always learning from every song he hears. That's not to say he lacks his own style. Not at all. Instead, he's like a musical super sponge. It's as if his technique changes so constantly and so perfectly with each new bit of information. And while every band grows over time, Vernon and Bon Iver seem to grow more broadly, sprawling as much as they reach skyward. "Wash." is a soft track that starts with subtle, repetitive piano and starts pulling in multiple directions, adding strings and loops and warbling electronic touches. If you don't listen closely you can miss some of these stylistic touches. But you will listen closely because it's worth it.
"Calgary" is especially interesting for the reasons I've just mentioned. It begins like a calm day and builds almost slowly enough that you'd never notice until it's nearly a power pop track and then it cools and disappears. So fucking beautiful. Really. The penultimate track "Lisbon, OH" is a brief rest, a calm before the final cry that is "Beth / Rest." And "Beth / Rest" feels a bit like Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence." That's a compliment. And really it's nothing like it, but there's something in the chord progression. And the synthy echo of the piano. Regardless, you could not ask for a better closing track. Or for that matter, a better album.
I'd love to have had the complete album streaming here, but since it just came out, and experienced the leakage issues early this year, it's not fully available anywhere. So instead, check out the links above and the video below, a remix of "Skinny Love" that will light your lamp.
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- June 2: The Dodos
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