Review of the Week: Bon Iver
Bon Iver's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, arrived complete with a creation myth too good to be true. Although I'm fairly certain most folks reading a Bon Iver review have heard the tale already, let's do this once more for the sake of the noobs: After his band and his romance went up in smoke, a despondent Justin Vernon retreated to his father's cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness to spend three months of wintry solitude, during which time he recorded a gorgeous set of lovelorn singer-songwritery ballads. He released the album under the name Bon Iver, an intentionally mangled take on the French phrase for "good winter."
We journos beat that story to death, regurgitating it in every Bon Iver review and feature. (And how could we not? The music sounds exactly like a slow, snowy redemption should.) As For Emma's magnetic pull attracted an ever-expanding legion of listeners, the album became so steeped in mythology that it was hard to imagine Justin Vernon ever creating another document so fully realized, so vital and personal, so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Blood Bank is a second tentative sign that Bon Iver can survive, even flourish, outside the cabin. (The band's buoyant live shows were the first.) The EP maintains the mood of For Emma, presenting more dark snapshots dimly lit by nostalgia and hope. It plays like a set of outtakes and experiments anchored by one marvelous title track. "Blood Bank" would have been as much of a standout on the previous album as it is here, and other than the conspicuous shift from acoustic to electric guitar (uh... Judas?), it would have been a perfect fit. The song drifts in with cold, blustery cooing then uses low-register melodies as a launchpad for Vernon's trademark falsetto. All the while, white noise builds in intensity until it carries Vernon's melody/mantra, "...and I know it well," into the stratosphere.
None of the other three songs is as affecting, though "Woods" is hugely fascinating and can be totally immersive if it catches you in the right headspace. More a stunt than a song, the closing track finds Vernon in a cappella mode, harmonizing with himself hall-of-mirrors style, like an indie-folk Freddie Mercury. The big twist is that his voice is submerged in the same robotic AutoTune effect that has dominated pop radio for the past two years. It's not like Vernon is blazing new trails here; Imogen Heap was doing this in an "indie rock" context before anybody had ever heard of T-Pain. Contrivance or not, the trick pays dividends worth more than mere novelty. As a one-off, it's brilliant. As a bold new direction? Not so much.
The pair of songs in between is pleasant but rather unmemorable. "Beach Baby" is a tasty scrap of bare-bones Bon Iver, but it's still a scrap. And the ethereal, piano-led "Babys" floats more or less aimlessly, like a middling Sufjan Stevens interlude. I'm glad Vernon tried it, but I'm also glad it's not mucking up his next full-length.
Speaking of that next full-length: Blood Bank bodes well for it. For one thing, the title track proves Vernon can be every bit as spellbinding under more conventional circumstances, with a full band in a studio. It proves the peripheral factors don't matter so much as maintaining the strong songwriting that was the core of For Emma, a task he seems ready to handle. But Vernon's experiments are just as heartening; they assure us that he's not trying to stay in some safe zone and conjure new magic from the same old tricks. If he steps carefully, he might be able to navigate his way out of the corner we've painted him into.