Bon Iver By Bon Iver
Since the release of Bon Iver's debut record, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon has done just about everything he could to set the stage for a hugely disappointing follow-up. For Emma was released independently in 2007 under circumstances that would lead to a Bon Iver creation myth.
Reportedly, Vernon disappeared to a cabin in the middle of a Wisconsin winter after a breakup with a girl. Ensconced in the woods, he wrote and recorded the songs that would become the sound of Bon Iver. Many even thought Bon Iver was Vernon's actual name due to the deliberate misspelling of the French phrase for "good winter."
A record that was released quietly by a mysterious man who finds inspiration in the middle of the woods – who doesn't love that story? For Emma also happened to be one of the simplest yet innovative releases of the year, and Vernon became an icon of the indie crowd.
A follow-up to For Emma appeared almost too quickly, and it was only an EP. Blood Bank teased fans with just four songs, one of them deliberately and surprisingly auto-tuned. Then, Vernon pulled back the reins and would build anticipation by waiting another three years to release a second full-length record.
In the meantime, he flew to Hawaii to make a guest appearance on Kanye West's 2010 release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Delivering an eerily auto-tuned vocal intro to a track that would feature Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj, Vernon irrevocably thrust himself into the pop mainstream. In anticipation of the new release, Vernon landed on the cover of Spin. The record, simply titled Bon Iver, was going to have to be pretty damn good.
It is. Bon Iver accomplishes a remarkable feat: it doesn't just improve on For Emma, it changes our perception of For Emma. What seemed groundbreaking at the time now sounds like someone tinkering, and it is stunning that one of the best records of 2008 in retrospect was just a warm up.
On Bon Iver, Vernon displays a talent for placing things – whether sounds or lyrics – in exactly the right place. Sure, he is inventive with his vocabulary to the point of nonsensical lyrics. Yes, on the final track he features a Korg synthesizer that sounds ripped from a 1980s Peter Gabriel song (and that he told Jimmy Fallon on Late Night was an homage to Bruce Hornsby). One gets a sense though that Vernon doesn't dabble in irony. The songs on the record blend into one another, creating an emotion in the listener that supersedes all else.
Justin Vernon is more than the mythic man in the woods – a mediocre record or two would wash that veneer clean off. Rather, Bon Iver shows that he is a true musical craftsman, a person who can maintain his talent in the glare of the spotlight, and one who has delivered what will be the best record of 2011.