It feels like forever since For Emma, Forever Ago came flying out of the Wisconsin wilderness back in 2007 (and released in the U.K. in 2008), but Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, is back with that tricky sophomore album. And it most definitely is a tricky second album, after the first album placed 7th on the review-aggregator site Metacritic in 2008, and with a couple of collaborations with the world’s favourite nutcase Kanye West on his last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With no-one expecting Vernon to re-hibernate and re-contract mononucleosis (as he did before the creation of For Emma, Forever Ago), Vernon has decided to create something bigger, bolder and more badass, yet still equally as beautiful.
Recorded in a remodelled veterinarian clinic in Wisconsin, Vernon enlisted the help of his brother in building the studio, and equally has turned to others to help make this record; namely a couple of saxophonists and a pedal-steel guitarist. That bigger and ambitious sound is slowly showcased during the opening track, ‘Perth’. It opens up with those reminiscent flickering chords and Vernon’s haunting falsetto vocals, before the last minute and a half breaks down with big crashing drums, and the saxophone merrily entwining itself between those fantastically hissy guitar chords.
‘Minnesota, WI’ opens up equally as timidly and shy, before building into something wondrous and powerful. A banjo twinkles, with a pretty funky R&B bass-line riding along underneath. Lyrically the record is a little less open than For Emma, and Vernon has said that this is a ‘sounds-first’ record, but he is still capable of turning out some beautifully poetic moments. ‘Towers’ sounds a little bluesier, as Vernon sings: “For the love comes the burning young, from the liver sweating through your tongue.”
As the record seeps into your brain, every track, every vocal and every sound is perfectly measured out. It’s nigh on impossible to find a flaw. First single ‘Calgary’ plays a neat little trick in threatening to get big and anthemic before ending in Ouroboros like fashion, turning that big sound in on itself.
As difficult as it is to pick out the highlight of the album, final track ‘Beth/Rest’ completely blows me away. It teeters on the edge of cheesiness, with big 80’s power ballad keys and a gently weeping guitar. Vernon flicks in between that high falsetto vocal and a more standard vocal sound, but you completely believe and feel the emotion on that song. As Vernon recently said in an interview with Pitchfork: “I cried while working on that song. I know what that means, where that comes from, and why you cry for music.” It’s so powerful, so moving, and the perfect end to a perfect album. Nobody really knew where this album would go, but it’s so wonderfully progressive, and I think is what people were really hoping for.