Whether you like it or not, the mythology behind Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago had as much to do with its viral word-of-mouth momentum as the astonishing power of Justin Vernon’s songwriting. Everyone knows by now that "good" music doesn’t make its way to your ears on its musical merits alone: it needs a good story, and even good stories don’t sell themselves anymore (if they ever truly did). They need to be freighted with the baggage of the Real, whatever your definition of “based on a true story” might entail. That’s why the memoir is the only “literary” form that sells and why the world now knows Vernon’s stage name over those of countless other equally deserving folkies.
The complicating factor in taking this view of Vernon, and the tragic flaw of Blood Bank, is that he really is an incredible talent in possession of an incredible voice. This EP could have and should have been proof he can stand apart from For Emma’s lovelorn back-story of his Wisconsin woodland hermitage. Instead, it offers up one really memorable song with a great opening line (the title track), two formulaic efforts that are practically named the same, and one quirky studio experiment.
“Blood Bank” is undoubtedly solid, with an ear-catching vocal melody laid over a fairly standard acoustic chord progression that eventually dissolves into feedback static. But “Beach Baby” and “Babys” have little to offer lyrically, melodically, or meaningfully, even though either could have become something more with a little extra time to incubate. Meanwhile, critics all over the place are reading “Woods” as some kind of commentary on the artistic legitimacy of Auto-Tune, their blood quickened by Kanye and Weezy. What it really sounds like is a guy with a vocoder or comparable software to which he didn’t have access before, enthusiastically exploring one technological avenue of what can be done with his voice (or, for better or worse, anyone’s).
It might be helpful to think of Blood Bank not as an EP but as a single with a solid new A-side and three largely irrelevant B-sides. Vernon and co. are clearly capable of better, which will likely be borne out by future work. His contributions (under both the band’s name and his own) to 4AD’s forthcoming HIV/AIDS benefit compilation Dark Was The Night provide hints at the same. It’s also telling that the EP was initially offered as a stopgap tour-only release. So don’t get too excited about it, but don’t stress too much either: enjoy Blood Bank’s slight pleasures, and hold out hope for the real deal.
1. Blood Bank
2, Beach Baby