So much for a sophomore slump. If Justin Vernon felt any pressure to follow up 2007's indie sensation "For Emma, Forever Ago", it sure doesn't show on Bon Iver's second full length. If "Bon Iver" doesn't end up my favorite album of 2011, it's destined for my Top Three, and it will take a work of epic proportions to unseat it. Yes, it is that good.
Coming in at just under 40 minutes, "Bon Iver" is a journey through different locales, moods and emotions, but what sets it apart from Vernon's debut is how much warmer the whole thing feels. Using a full band for this record certainly has a lot to do with that, but even though arrangements are fleshed out with horns, strings, drums, guitars, organs, synths and you name it, the music never falls under the weight of being over-produced. The whole thing is pulled off so masterfully, all you can do is sit back in awe at what Vernon has created here.
Opener "Perth" starts quietly with a repeated electric guitar line before Vernon's trademark falsetto enters for the first time to a tapping drumline. The song ends in a fury of pounding drums courtesy of Sean Carey and wired guitar with french horns and trumpets on top of it all for good measure. Yes, this album is that kind of wonderful.
"Minnesota, WI" also starts with a serene, guitar intro and there are all kinds of sounds at play in this one, from flutes, saxes and violins to the pedal steel guitar cries that enter before Vernon delivers solemn cries of "Never gonna break, never gonna break" in the chorus. It needs to be heard to truly understand the loveliness at play here.
As good as the first two tracks are, nothing could have prepared me for "Holocene", quite simply the most gorgeous song I'll likely hear this year. Not only is the melody so beautiful it hurts, Vernon's realization and delivery of the line "...and at once I knew I was not magnificent" will surely get the tears welling in your eyes. Picture an event in your life, or a breathtaking site that brings you to understanding what a small place you truly hold in the world. We've all experienced these events. They are humbling, yet can be life changing and affirming, and the words and music of this masterpiece of a song fully capture these feelings.
As stunning as "Holocene" is, the album does not lose momentum after its standout track. From the subdued ballad "Michicant" to the piano and strings of "Wash." and through the countrified folk of "Towers", there is not a mis-step to be found here. First single "Calgary" serves as a perfect choice to introduce the album, harmonic falsetto vocals, haunting keyboards and another unforgettable melody carry everything along. It's more challenging than your typical radio fare, but as accessible as anything in the Bon Iver catalog thus far.
Album closer "Beth/Rest" has drawn some of the most attention of anything on "Bon Iver" for its use of synth sounds and production straight out of the 80's. Vernon has acknowledged it owes quite a lot to the music of Bruce Hornsby, but think of 80's ballads from the likes of Steve Winwood, Chicago or Richard Marx and you'll get the picture too. It sounds straight off of an 80's light pop playlist and my reaction is so what? It's a lovely close to the album, and the fact Vernon is not afraid to wear his affection for these sounds and that era on his sleeve makes you respect him even more. There's nothing ironic or smart assed about it, it's an unapologetic nod to artists and a genre he respects and was influenced by. Good for him.
So the pressures of the follow-up album to a successful debut have been avoided. "Bon Iver" has been met with near universal critical praise and will surely top many year end Best Of lists. It's hard to imagine what Vernon and company will be able to deliver with the follow-up to this one, but concentrating on that instead of spending inordinate amounts of time with this gem would be a crime. "Bon Iver" will have staying power, as its a perfect soundtrack to the fall and winter released in the heat of the summer. It'll be there to revisit and keep you warm on the coldest of nights when the seasons change later this year. There may be plenty more great music released in 2011, but the bar has been set. High.
"Bon Iver" was released in the U.S. June 21, 2011 on the Jagjaguwar label.