Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) has come a long way since recording his critically acclaimed debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in his father's hunting cabin tucked away in the Minnesota woods. With his Autumn tour all but sold out even before the release of his second full-length album Bon Iver his place as new indie heart-throb seems assured.
Despite what you may have already heard, Bon Iver is not the radical departure from For Emma... some would have you believe. It still possesses that sleepy, dreamy quality heightened by Vernon's hypnotic falsetto. The tracks seem to bleed into one another without taking any discernible shape, like a Monet painting you have to look at from a few feet away in order to make out the image buried in a wash of colour. It is a darkly beautiful collection, slightly unsettling yet richly rewarding, Vernon's songs fattened up by some fine work from his backing band.
The album really continues from where For Emma... and 2009's Blood Bank EP left off. Where the first two releases felt like scrapbooks, incomplete thoughts, daydreams and antidotes, Bon Iver has a fuller, more complete sound and while this may be more accessible to the average music buyer, the effect is, it has to be said, slightly less interesting. The songs themselves are like a collection of picture postcards, each named after a destination. The lovely 'Perth' with it's rat-a-tat drums and trumpets marches its way onto the album, or 'Minnesota WI', pensive and earthy, Vernon's falsetto giving way to his throaty baritone, the chorus of horns giving way to a single plucking acoustic guitar and then back again as if the singer is pacing back and forth in thought. The album doesn't feel like so much a journey to these various locales but more musings and reminiscences of past events; the person who made the journey and who that person is now, now that the journey is complete.
The wistful 'Holocene' begins with Vernon's plaintive voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar and soft percussion. The effect is startlingly beautiful: "You fucked it friend, it's on it's head, it struck the street / You're in Milwaukee, off your feet." From the upbeat rambling of 'Towers' to the slow waltz of 'Michicant' with its accordion and bicycle bell adding a touch of nostalgia - it feels as if Vernon hasn't really left that hunting cabin, just invited more of us inside. The songs may all contain references to far away places, yet they are all seemingly dredged from a memory.
Unlike his initial works, Bon Iver seems to be starting with a clean slate. Bon Iver is less about the man, more about the band, Justin Vernon occasionally leaving his cosy confines to come to grips with the great world beyond, with the rest of us tagging along for fun.