Isolated in a snow-bound Wisconsin cabin, Justin Vernon, on his own, created nine mysteriously affecting and meditative songs which formed his band’s debut ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘, going on to acheive unprecendented success and heralding masterpieces such as ‘Skinny Love‘. The curious, introspective beauty of this debut seemed like a difficult proposition to follow-up, but after three years, Bon Iver had emerged with the self-titled sophomore album.
In the build-up to this LP, Vernon claimed the only pressure he felt was personal and the reason why it was delayed until 2011 was because he “needed to search for the right album”. He had supposedly commenced work on ideas for the album even prior to the release of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘. He returned to Wisconsin to record it to “get away from the swirling world of whatever else was going on”. The product of these sessions in the country ranch is a ten-track album with a more expansive sound and wider influences but Bon Iver’s trademark elusive beauty remains intact.
The album opens with ‘Perth‘ which features a reverbed, distorted guitar, along with military-sounding drum patterns. This leads into the remarkably groovy ‘Minnesota, WI‘. ‘Holocene‘ reverts back to more familiar Bon Iver territory with its chiming acoustic guitar and xylophone touch. ‘Towers‘ incorporates mellow strumming with eloquent strings along with shuffling percussion reminiscent of ‘Kingdom Of Rust‘ by Doves. ‘Michicant‘ takes a trip back to childhood with lyrics such as “I wasn’t afraid, I was a boy, it was a tender age”. ‘Hinnom, TX’ is a fluttering ballad which includes baritone lead vocals. ‘Wash.’ is a mournful number which begins with a basic, gently uplifting piano progression. ‘Calgary‘ is a densely-sounding, slow-burning ballad. ‘Lisbon OH‘ is a simplistic song which is essentially a minute and a half of keyboard-driven ambience to set listeners up for the album closer. ‘Beth/Rest‘ returns to a love theme with it’s distinct vintage sound.
The intricate texture of this mesmerizing second album is the sound of Bon Iver stretching horizons by changing musical style without completely abandoning their soft acoustic roots. It would be a challenge to replicate the beauty of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘, but it seems Bon Iver have emerged out of the second album syndrome with flair on this overall impressive body of work.