Let me start with a confession. I never really have totally gotten into For Emma, Forever Ago, the 2008 album that was the first release songwriter Justin Vernon released under the name Bon Iver. That debut may have received universal acclaim everywhere else, but for me it resembles a collection of sparsely recorded acoustic, melancholic folk songs, nothing more, nothing less. Don't get me wrong, Vernon was clearly capable at what he was doing, but for some reason the songs have never clicked with me as of yet. But I'm hoping they will someday, and Bon Iver's sophomore full length has given me more than enough reason to keep that particular door ajar.
Certainly everyone else's reaction to For Emma was much more positive, in terms of both critical acclaim and sales. Part of the reason for that is likely to be in the story behind the record. Who can resist the romantic idea of a lone figure seeking refuge in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, complete with he breakup of his previous band and relationships, and leaving with a record of such emotional turmoil? It seems as though every one of Vernon's peers have attempted it since. Meanwhile Vernon was out there working on other projects, after For Emma had helped him to shed his skin: a follow-up EP Blood Bank, the Volcano Choir, Gayngs, and most recently vocal contributions to Kanye West's most recent album, each one of them proving that debut was more than just a fluke, and each one raising the status for its true sister record to bear, the almost-self-titled Bon Iver.
Despite the added instrumentation it is still this voice that guides the songs, which is probably the reason Vernon decided to publish his lyrics on his website shortly after the album had been sadly inevitably leaked. Both Vernon's words and their delivery are at the heart of the music of Bon Iver, and as a songwriter and a singer he remains as sharp as ever. The images he paints for "Michicant" are my favourite, the childhood and adolescent memories and longing for the past: "I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age". And of course Vernon can hold a tune like none other, whether it be on the hushed "Wash.", the stronger country-shuffled "Towers", or the brash, autotuned closer "Beth/Rest".
"Woods" is a truer starter for Vernon's foray into vocal effects). "Beth/Rest" sounds like a cloudy, forgotten 80's radio rip, with confident guitar lines cutting up the track's Casiotone keyboard sounds. It makes sense for this to be the ending track on the album, it shows a totally different Bon Iver, one that is completely strong and unashamed, a symbol of the complete change from the For Emma period, and hope for the future. It remains conscious, not reactionary or strategic, and all songs on Bon Iver retain themes of isolation and introspection regardless of the money, fame, production values and instrumentation, a very difficult balance to have preserved.
Bon Iver and For Emma, Forever Ago are in fact more similar than they may seem, and a great number of criticisms the new record have already and may continue to attract can in truth be projected onto the first, particularly regarding the sound quality and atmospherics, which do justice to the sounds of both albums. I'm often of the belief that a change is usually a good thing, despite its initial intimidation, and if you've noticed my previous blog post this is reflected in many of my favourite albums of the year so far (Radiohead's The King of Limbs and Battles' Gloss Drop spring to mind). The fact remains that Justin Vernon remains one of the best vocalists and songwriters of our times, and the public seem to have responded to this. Bon Iver is currently sitting at the #2 position on the Billboard charts and is at #4 in the UK, both after the albums' first week of release. Bon Iver the project is also here to stay, and all the better for it. Even though there are mixed responses to this release under the name, I predict that the superior songwriting, lyricism and sheer beauty of this record will eventually warm the hearts of many, just as one day For Emma will warm mine.