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Record Review: Bon Iver’s Bon Iver

By / Posted on 20 June 2011

Bon IverNobody could have expected the widespread popularity of Justin Vernon’s 2007 debut solo album as Bon Iver. Sedate, intimate, and deeply personal, For Emma, Forever Ago burned its acoustic guitar ballads of loneliness and heartache into the souls of hipsters and coffee shop clientele worldwide. Vernon’s quiet self-released album about desolation led to royalty checks from popular tv shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, House, One Tree Hill, and Skins, an original song for the Twilight movies, and several collaborations with Kanye West. Calling For Emma, Forever Ago a sleeper hit raises the expectations of all other sleepers to dangerously unrealistic proportions. Vernon faced the dilemma that hits oh-so-many popular musicians: how does one follow-up such an unmitigated success?

Self-titling your album is a start. This sort of tactic most musicians use for their debut, though as of late have been reserving for later albums deemed indicative of a radical shift in their sound in the hopes that they will usher in a new generation of interest (see: Interpol, Liars, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Broken Social Scene, Blink 182, the Cure). The eponymous album seems intent to say “this is who I am,” though more often than not it only demonstrates what the band used to be. In the case of Bon Iver, what Vernon used to be was anthemic and poignant.

Bon Iver sounds as though it were informed by early 4AD records — the likes of This Mortal Coil, His Name is Alive and Cocteau Twins (fitting, as Bon Iver is published in Europe by 4AD, as are other popular American bands Deerhunter, TV On The Radio and The National). Vernon’s gentle guitar strums and layered falsetto vocals are back, and they’ve brought all manner of big production bells and whistles with them. There are horns, cymbals, snares, distorted electric guitars, organs, and yes, even literal bells and whistles. Bon Iver sounds big, the exact opposite of For Emma, Forever Ago. When such a drastic shift is turned, one must ask if the album should be compared to the prior or taken as a whole new entity. Unfortunately, Bon Iver does not shine brightly under either condition.

There are times when Bon Iver attempts to rock, and moments where it genuinely crosses over into amped-up action that is downright enjoyable, but like the big budget summer blockbuster from a celebrated low-budget film director, it lacks any sort of emotional connection. There are no points on any of the ten songs contained within where the audience is likely to sing along or feel personally involved, sensations that dominated Bon Iver’s debut. Taken on its own, as the first impressions of a band unaware of the previous album, the songs contained herein are pleasant but ultimately forgettable. There is no great hook to catch the listener, who will soon go off and find something else to listen to. Whether intentional or not, Bon Iver have made an excellent background music album, as the sounds are all likable but do not warrant the whole of the audience’s attention.

Vernon has proven that he’s not just another guy with an acoustic guitar, a point he was keen to make when touring For Emma, Forever Ago. Unfortunately, while proving he could make grander, more atmospheric soundscapes, he forgot about what people liked in his music to begin with: its open heart. Perhaps in the future we’ll get the best of both worlds, a well-produced album with grandiose instrumentation to underscore intense personal convictions. Until that day, expect to hear the tunes of Bon Iver in the background of even more romantic sequences on your primetime television lineup.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.