Thursday, September 22, 2011

Justin Vernon cranks the volume knob on Bon Iver's latest

At once I knew I was not magnificent.

Justin Vernon delivers this statement on "Holocene" the third track of Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore release. His moment of raw self-realization is a humbling admission on all fronts. Anyone who's ever felt the way he describes here will immediately get it. And those who haven't will have a doorway opened in their minds.

Vernon's method of communicating is on a different wavelength from most of his contemporaries: he's able to take a particular emotion and explain it in a way that is universally understandable. Bon Iver is like an emotional catharsis; his quiet, stripped back approach and trademark falsetto promise to deliver a dynamic impact upon the listener. And when you've finished, you feel like you've learned something new about yourself.

This album releases in the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago, a record that focused on longing and regret. Not to be outdone, Bon Iver has a theme of its own - each track is named after a specific location, and is an ode to the memories that were made there.

Unlike Emma, this album is much less overt with its folk influences. Much of the backing music has much more of a post-rock feel to it. The opener, "Perth" spells this out as clearly as any track on the record. But what hasn't changed is the intimate impact Vernon delivers.

The songwriting tends to focus on personal relationships, and the memories they leave behind. The lyrics are usually rather vague, but have a very nostalgic and reminiscent feel to them. It's like he's speaking to an old friend about good times and no one will totally understand all the details of what is being said except the two of them.

While "Holocene" and "Perth" are the clear moody highlights, there are a few slightly more upbeat tunes for variety. Or at least upbeat by Bon Iver standards. "Towers" could be the soundtrack a leisurely wagon ride on a dirt road, while "Minnesota, WI," and "Calgary" give Vernon an excellent chance to show off his lower register.

With all that said, however, I can't help but feel that Bon Iver is something of a step back from Emma.

Emma excelled in having a very earthy, folky roots feel, particualry in songs like "Skinny Love" and "The Wolves," which Bon Iver lacks for the most part. In all honesty, it sounds like it's trying too hard to be a Hallmark card at times. The cheesy synthesizer intro on "Beth/Rest" is the biggest offender, but tracks like "Hinnom, TX" and especially "Wash." deliver the sonic equivalent of a Tylenol PM.

It's a very good record no doubt, but certainly not for everyone. Bon Iver is one of those artists who excel in one area and one area only, and you have to really be into it to enjoy the record as a whole. He seems to be trying a bit too hard at times, and I usually get bored about halfway through the album.

In the end, Vernon was correct. Bon Iver is not magnificent. But there are some real gems here, and if you've never witnessed the magic that Justin Vernon can conjure at his best, there's no better time to do so than now.

Score: 79/100

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