Bon Iver
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Bon Iver at AIR Studios

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The guy who recorded an album alone in the woods. This line might end up on Justin Vernon's tombstone. There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating, heartbroken, to a cabin to write some songs-- especially when the result is a record that sounds as hushed and introspective as Bon Iver's 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. These days, Vernon is more likely to poke fun at the image, but it endures because it fulfils a fantasy for us as listeners. Even if we don't care for the outdoors, most of us occasionally want to escape our lives, be alone with our thoughts, and see if we can tap into something true. In a time of easy distraction, the idea of heading into a cabin at the edge of the world to create is alluring. By tying the intimacy of that image to Justin Vernon's music, we're able to take the trip with him.Since that album's release, Vernon's approach to writing and recording has changed. "I don't find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore," he recently told Pitchfork. "I wanted to build a sound from scratch and then use that sound to make the song." That difference is clear on Bon Iver. Instead of something that scans as "folk," the music here is more like rustic chamber pop with an experimental edge that makes careful use of arrangement and dynamics. And rather than being tied together by a central theme of loss, Vernon has fully shifted into a more impressionistic mode; these songs are broader and more musically sophisticated than those on For Emma at every turn.But the thread between this album and its comparatively skeletal predecessor is Vernon's voice, an instrument that feels warm and personal and close regardless of setting. Now that we've heard him singing hooks with Kanye West and taking the lead with Gayngs on songs that touch on R&B and soft rock, the general sphere of Vernon's voice is clear. He simultaneously evokes the grain and expression of soul music along with the mythological echoes of folk. But more importantly, no one else sounds like him. The Beach Boys have been the primary touchstone for layered vocals in indie music for years, but Vernon's timbre comes from somewhere else entirely. Where "Beach Boys harmonies" have a spiritual undercurrent that brings to mind a choirboy's dream of perfection, Vernon sounds like a man who has outgrown such ideas. His voice is earthy and wounded and, despite his astonishing upper register, not something you would describe as "angelic.""Holocene" contains one of this album's many virtuosic vocal performances. "Part of me, apart from me," Vernon sings early on, and those six words hold a lot. The evocative nature of his diction is apparent even in a simple line like "I was not magnificent." He sounds centered and clear while taking stock and allowing memories to be mixed in with the details of the present. His conflicted vocals trigger a half-dozen feelings all at once before releasing the tension with a refrain that finds the fleeting moment where the world seems right: "I could see for miles, miles, miles."Vernon posted Bon Iver's lyrics shortly after the album leaked last month, but they're not easy to parse-- the storytelling here is oblique. But there are connections. The song titles reference actual places ("Calgary") and places that sound real, but aren't ("Hinnom, TX", "Michicant"); they're less about geography and more about putting a name to a state of mind that mixes clarity and surrealism. And the deeper you sink into these tracks, the harder it becomes to extract specifics. One recurring element is intoxication-- lines about being drunk or high that come with recounted details. Which makes sense, because the album deals with escape and the struggle to get outside yourself. The narrator takes in what's around him, mixing those thoughts with memories of where he's been. Sometimes the lines have a startling specificity ("Third and Lake it burnt away, the hallway/ Was where we learned to celebrate," on "Holocene") and sometimes they contain words that seem to function more as sound ("fide" or "fane" on "Perth"). Throughout, there's a strong sense of an observer taking things in and processing confusing images, trying to figure out what can be learned.If you caught Vernon live after For Emma, you gradually saw him putting more and more emphasis on his band, moving Bon Iver from that solitary project into something that felt more like the work of a group. And Bon Iver, with its rich and layered arrangements, extends that development in a striking direction that's both logical and surprising. Blending natural instrumentation supplied by recruited players-- such as string arranger Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, the National, Arcade Fire) and a horn/woodwind section that includes versatile saxophonist Colin Stetson-- with an array of electronic and treated sounds, the album combines varied textures in ways that are ambitious and unusual but often subtle enough to miss on first glance.At points, Bon Iver draws on the experiments of Volcano Choir, Vernon's side project with the post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees (members from that group play on the album). Freed from conventional verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, the songs become more like tone poems, patient explorations of moods that proceed deliberately but unpredictably. The holistic style is evident on opener "Perth", which builds from total silence into a crashing peak over the course of four short minutes. And there's an uncanny moment on the breathtaking "Michicant", a song in part about childhood, where a bicycle bell rings twice, pulling you deeper into Vernon's reverie. It's a simple, brief effect, but it's indicative of how the album uses elemental sounds in unexpected ways.Vernon has taken that voice, and these arrangements, and crafted an album that unfolds like a suite. The structure is flawless right up to its conclusion, "Beth/Rest", which has been much remarked upon for its unabashed and unironic embrace of 80s adult contemporary pop sounds. If you've spent any time in the vicinity of a radio tuned to light rock, you hear the keyboard tone that opens the song and you think Lionel Richie, Richard Marx, and "No One Is to Blame".It's almost naive of Vernon to think he could pull this off. Yet, heard in context, it stands as one the record's bravest and most deftly executed moments-- not just because it lays bare Vernon's stated admiration for artists like Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby, but because it's executed to perfection. And while the production attempts to wring something new from a long-maligned sound, the song and voice remain true to Bon Iver as an idea. As a closer, "Beth/Rest" is more about finding comfort and resolution after a musical experience that asked more questions than it answered. The song draws a line in the sand for anyone with a deep investment in cool, and Vernon stands behind it with confidence. His belief in himself and in the power of his music is something that encourages us to transcend labels and preconceptions.After the closeness and austerity of For Emma, Vernon has given us a knotty record that resists easy interpretation but is no less warm or welcoming. You can feel it even as you don't completely understand it-- a testament to its careful construction and Vernon's belief in the power of music to convey deeper meaning. It's a rare thing for an album to have such a strong sense of what it wants to be. Bon Iver is about flow, from one scene and arrangement and song and memory and word into the next-- each distinct but connected-- all leading to "Beth/Rest". On the way there, the music moves like a river, every bend both unpredictable and inevitable as it carves sound and emotion out of silence.

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