The years between 2007 and 2011 were rather significant for Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver. His debut album had been picked up by a label, and launched him into international (indie) stardom.
He appeared on David Letterman, as well as the British website Black Cab Sessions and the French La Blogotheque.
You could find very few college campuses where no one knew his name.
His cabin-in-the-woods mythos became larger than life, and threatened to overshadow him. He responded by forming the noise-rock band Volcano Choir, joining the 80s soft-rock channeling supergroup Gayngs, and recording with Kanye West.
Then, he dropped Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a follow up that proved that sometimes, a debut isn’t as good as it gets. To anyone who had followed his group projects, the sounds on Bon Iver are unsurprising. Tape delays, electric pianos, brass sections, and electric guitars are everywhere, trading the man in the woods narrative for that of a studio mastermind leading an orchestra.
It confirms what I had been suspecting since I heard the second half of Blood Bank–Justin Vernon wasn’t a folk singer, he merely used folk as a musical device. And here, his pallet is largely expanded, ranging from the country-lap steel of “Towers” to the heartbreaking ambience of “Holocene” to the Roland Space Echo’ed piano of “Wash.” to the 80s soft rock of “Beth/Rest.”
But Vernon’s multitracked falsetto, which gave For Emma its heavy-laden pathos, is ever present here, giving the same power to similarly surreal lyrics. An excellent example is “Holocene,” where he follows the cloudy nostalgia of lines like “Someway baby, part of me, apart from me/You’re laying waste to Halloween” with the tragic refrain, “At once I knew, I was not magnificent.” It’s never quite clear what he’s talking about, but it’ll crush you. And the ambiguity plays well into his hand–the record is so intriguing precisely because Vernon never gives too much away, baring his soul while seeming to be hiding something behind his back.