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It’s been a mere month since bearded indie folkster Justin Vernon released his sophomore effort Bon Iver, Bon Iver. And by the looks of things, 2011 could very well be his year. This isn’t to say Bon Iver hasn’t been praised before; he has. But there’s something special about the momentum he’s building, which began last year when bombastic braggart Kanye West asked him to collaborate on West’s 2010 hip hop masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Listen for him on “Monster” and“Lost In The World”, the latter of which the duo performed at this year’s Coachella Festival.) Since then, he’s ridden the newfound popularity to the #2 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Bon Iver’s appeal is obvious. When music can stop you in your tracks, move you to clutch your heart and leave a lump in your throat, you’re going to listen. When lyrics are mysterious and poetically sentimental, you’re free to decipher them as you see fit. This is what separates Vernon from the rest of the indie twee pack (Fleet Foxes, Andrew Bird, Panda Bear) that has reigned since the early ‘00s. His ethereal sound, purposeful vagueness and non-traditional song structure is a challenge. And who doesn’t love a challenge?

cd coverIt was 2007 when Bon Iver first arrived on the musical landscape with the self-released debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Having just experienced the dissolution of a relationship and his college band, DeYarmand Edison, the romantic fable of this lone, falsetto-voiced man retreating to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods during a desolate winter to write and record an ode to heartbreak and loneliness was a publicist’s dream. More than just the sum of his solitary story, Vernon produced an atmospheric nine-track album employing sparse instrumentation, layered soulful vocals and cryptic lyrics on the burden of life. To hear the heartbreak in full, from MySpace Transmissions, listen to Bon Iver performance “For Emma”.

In 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago was picked up by indie label, Jagjaguwar Records and distributed worldwide. Universal acclaim from the press poured in, with the New York Times calling it simply “irresistible”, and British music mag MOJO hailing it a “MOJO Instant Classic”. Vernon followed up with the smaller, four-song CD Blood Bank a year later. Here, experimentation ruled, with a bit more knob twiddling, and an AutoTuned a cappella (“Woods”) alongside much more confident vocals (“Blood Bank”). Like the change of seasons, Blood Bank is the equivalent of spring emerging from the wintry confines of its predecessor.  

During this time, Vernon, along with his brother Nate, bought a ranch house/veterinarian clinic in Fall Creek and set about converting the odd piece of real estate in to a recording studio where eventually he would record and self-produce his second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Vernon wrote songs while on tour, which is evident from the track listings. “Perth”, “Minnesota, WI”, “Hinnom, TX”, “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH” trace where Vernon has traveled to and longingly imagined. Tossing aside his one-man work ethic, Bon Iver, Bon Iver features an expansive cast of musicians, including Vernon’s touring band mates and friends whose musical resumes include working with Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, The National and Rufus Wainwright. Solemn snare drums tinge the opener, “Perth”, as they slowly build to a solid military march. The upbeat, pedal steel toe tapping “Towers” is a welcome lift from Bon Iver’s signature inward dreaminess, while the piano plinking track “Wash.” mirrors a heartbeat desperate to be kept alive.
But, as having too many cooks can ruin a meal, having too many instruments can ruin a track. This is the case with the surprisingly Bruce Horsby-ish, “Beth/Rest”. With eighties keyboards, piercing guitars in the background and horns that sound like vintage Kenny G. don’t work at all. All is forgiven, though, when the Bon Iver collective reaches loftier, cathedral heights, as they did when they ventured out as a nine-piece with horns, woodwinds and two drum sets for a first video and single released from Bon Iver, Bon Iver was “Calgary”, which starts with a calm, Peter Gabriel-like intro that rises midway to a fuzzy cacophony before fading back to the sincere, angelic vocals of Vernon. The surprising treat on this 12-inch is the B-side, a lovely cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Nick of Time”. The second single is “Holocene”, with another B-side treat, a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk To Me”.

With his bona fide success, Bon Iver hits the road this summer for sold-out shows in clubs and theaters across North America. And this fall, he will take the show to Europe, where he’ll headline the inaugural two-day Parisian edition of the Pitchfork Music Festival on October 28 and 29, an outing that Vernon helped to curate. Highly acclaimed musician, successful producer, and now booking agent, 2011 certainly appears to be the year Bon Iver conquers all.  

For more news, videos and updates, check out / Issue 125 - September 2018
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