I’m always a bit suspicious whenever someone tells me that an album has “changed” their life. More often than not, the exact opposite is true. No matter how good, the album in question hasn’t changed a thing at all, but merely affirmed some deeply ingrained, more pleasing vision of the listener’s identity. Many friends, for instance, claimed that they were immediately transformed upon hearing Bon Iver’s 2008 album, For Emma, Forever Ago, but I still can’t notice — three years later — any noticeable difference (if anything, they all just seem a little bit hairier). No, if music is going to change your life, it’s more likely to happen through an album that is disagreeable or even slightly disappointing, the one you really don’t want to play again. Simply put, if your musical hero is moving in a new direction, and not simply getting worse, that’s when you need to stop talking about yourself and pay attention. That’s when, perhaps, you should put in a little time with Bon Iver’s unsettling sophomore effort, Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
To be clear, Justin Vernon is not one of my musical heroes, and I don’t think his new album is very consistent, or even always enjoyable. If anything, when I put on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, I get a little annoyed that I’m not listening to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy (a genuinely thrilling record on which Vernon’s voice played a small, but essential role). But apart from my personal taste, the problem with Bon Iver’s latest effort is obvious. For all the talk of Vernon’s fragility and directness, this effort immediately comes across as over-composed and over-produced. The first two songs alone surge back and forth between at least 10 different styles, half of which have been out of style for decades. Vernon wears his love of Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and even Bruce Hornsby on his sleeve, but provides no clear justification for reviving or exploring their sounds today (unlike Dan Bejar’s use of 80s disco and new age on the last Destroyer album). And then the songs themselves — delicate little ditties about nature, geography, and memory — simply do not bear the weight of their excessive production effects. Do we really need six, seven, eight, or even more Justin Vernons all singing each melody at once? Does each strum of his guitar really need to echo for one, two, three measures of each song? Honestly, it took me a good dozen listens to figure out where any of these songs begin and end, let alone how their various parts relate to each other. The arrangements are ridiculously busy, nearly incoherent, and, without any good will or patience, they might just leave you dismissing Vernon as an artist who has lost his way.
I don’t just want to defend Bon Iver, Bon Iver as a “grower,” but it is undeniably an album about “growth,” and it has a way of pushing you out of your comfort zone. Sure, we all said What the fuck? when the album’s first single “Calgary” appeared online last month. And why not? The song begins with a limp synth line and a set of shrill and essentially meaningless vocals. “Don’t you cherish me to sleep/ Never keep your eyelids clipped.”?? I turned it off about a minute later, as soon as the drums kicked in; they sounded too much like an 80s MOR band trying to gain some gravitas. Slowly, though, with the actual album in hand, the pieces come together. I know where this song is going now, as well as the relationship it describes, and I love tracking its transformation from ethereal hymn to primitive stomp. I love how its images and emotions stream by in the single words that start each verse — “hair,” “hip,” “joy,” and, best of all, “sold.” I love how the rhythm builds with the melody, pushing the vocals toward an almost animal climax, and then receding at the end, leaving the listener in a state of stunned wakefulness. Now, with each listen, new lyrical pieces fall into place, some personal, some cosmic, but all mysterious and essential. I’m not sure that I can find the words to tell you exactly what “Calgary” means, but the song seems like a complete musical idea, one that needs the music itself — even its Gabriel references — to convey its deep significance.
Nearly all the mythology that surrounds Vernon rests on his relation to the woods or, more specifically, to that lonesome cabin in Wisconsin where he retreated and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago. In this, of course, his story resembles that of many renegade artists and thinkers — from Thoreau to Dylan — who turn to nature as a way of purifying their vision. In a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, however, Vernon describes the new album as less an act of purgation and more an effort to gather and create: “I’m trying to become something,” he claims, “and that was a different accent, a different place in my brain.” Certainly, on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon seems to be gathering up his personal influences, shoring up his sound with a more powerful set of rhythms, melodies, and tones. More pointedly, though, he connects with nature here as not just a setting in which to pursue some romantic vision of selfhood, but more like a set of powerful forces and geological transformations that he’s trying to recreate in song. In other words, he seems less like a folk musician and more like a naturalist whose medium just happens to be music. In fact, he seems less like an artist and more like a geologist, using his finely-tuned instruments to catch shifts both seismic and subtle in the earth’s mantle.
Indeed, the first two songs — “Perth” and “Wisconsin, MI” — make a lot more sense if you take them together as some kind of naturalist’s manifesto. As they shift back and forth between bubbling synths, pummeling guitars, and airy vocals, one gets the sense of creation itself. To use Vernon’s own terms, these songs “ramble in the roots” to convey an “arboretic truth.” Each shift in sound feels like the ground breaking beneath you, seething with new life and constant death. In fact, on the first, Vernon sings, “You’re breaking your ground,” and the music perfectly captures, when the guitars kick in again, both the thrill and fear of that momentous movement. In the second, he chants, “Never gonna break, never gonna break,” using his falsetto to convey the majestic strength of all things that flow, of life that draws power from its own momentum. In all this, yes, Vernon’s pushing his sound towards extreme and often violent ends, and the sound of the album as a whole is abrasive and harsh. But so is nature itself. The abrupt changes in rhythm here serve to convey powerful shifts in force, while Vernon fully exploits his voice to give us rough contrasts in texture and grain. “I will let you grow, no need to know this,” he sings on the second track. You’re not sure if he’s singing to a plant, a lover, or his own music, but you get the sense that each of these will thrive in the end.
Thus, the best tracks on the album — “Holocene,” “Michicant,” and, my favorite, “Wash.”— move beyond the romance of Vernon the fragile singer-songwriter and become songs in their own right, acts of creation, organic and vital. “Holocene” is an undeniably personal song, full of painful, if vague memories, but its range of sounds — from the processed finger-picked guitar to the airy vocals and martial drums — all come together with abstract splendor and force. “Michicant,” with its multitracked vocals and gentle waltz beat, pulses with love and life, without really saying anything about either. Indeed, this song is the best example of Vernon’s shift from personal expression to organic creation. Since the lyrics first seem like nothing more than gibberish, such as “melic in the naked, knew a lake and drew the lofts for page,” you can’t do anything but indulge in their sheer physicality. There’s the crisp alliteration of “melic,” “naked,” and “lake and” as well as the lush rhyme between “knew” and “drew,” but then the lyric as a whole is set against the gentle lilt of the rhythm, giving the line all the beauty and grace of dynamic form. In this regard, though, “Wash.” is the true marvel. With its two-note piano riff, quivering strings, and ambient hums, the song grows into something rich and strange right before your ears — nature and second nature all at once. Here, Vernon, like some indie rock Prospero, creates a whole “young habitat” from scratch, using sweet airs to mimic and master the forces of creation. Listening to this song is like watching a stalk break from the spring frost and then flower right in front of you — one could nearly weep from its beauty.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver will ultimately rise or fall as the album on which Vernon began to experiment with fuller arrangements, where he discovered complex rhythms and melodies, and where he began to play with the vocal stylings of soul and R&B (his performance on Fallon last month was more impressive for its nod to Donny Hathaway than its homage to Bonnie Raitt). In this, it recalls the recent work of My Morning Jacket, a band that has similarly struggled to incorporate new styles (specifically funk and heavy metal) on its last two albums. At the same time, it sounds a lot like TV On The Radio at their most challenging, especially when Vernon uses African rhythmic patterns or his voice dips into a more ominous, lower register. But despite these connections, Vernon is clearly cutting his own path through the indie woods, and his new songs have a presence and weight that seems like a good step forward from the sound of For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that, quite frankly, always tended to drift away from me. Ultimately, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is the sound of growth, of growing pains, and the sound of grounding, of tearing new ground. If it aches, it aches like any natural growth, with beauty and wonder.