Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver is the second record of what is essentially the solo project of Wisconsin native Justin Vernon. Returning after his heartbreakingly brilliant debut For Emma, Forever Ago (created entirely while holed up in a log cabin through a freezing winter in the middle of nowhere, alone) and a fruitful 2010 which saw him release the excellent Relayted with side-project Gayngs and feature heavily on Kanye West’s critically-embraced My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Vernon has delivered one of the most complete and beautiful works in recent memory.

Perth opens the record, just one of a series of song titles that evoke a physical, geographical connection to the land and an innate sense of place. The track itself is a wistful acoustic journey backed with reverb-drenched vocal harmonies that recall those of Fleet Foxes, marching snare drums, and a sombre brass and woodwind section, eventually building up into a majestic epic. The constantly evolving arrangement of Minnesota, WI follows, Vernon channelling the vocal inflections of Coldplay’s Chris Martin in the opening segment before his aching falsetto makes a grand entrance backed by strangely regal banjo plucking and Midwestern pedal-steel guitar towards the closure. Holocene is the record’s most poignant and elegant track, the sombre folk acoustic guitar and resonant piano and vibraphone backing building up and breaking down throughout its near six minute duration while a heartbroken Vernon muses with a sense of resignation, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent”. The melodic Towers is immaculately arranged, featuring brilliant key changes and several distinct parts that intertwine to create a seamless, magnificently dynamic whole.

Michicant sees Vernon perhaps at his most downcast, with the track’s sombre, wintry feel matched perfectly by a typically exquisite lyrical vignette culminating in the portentous “Hung up in the ivory, both were climbing for a finer cause/Love can hardly leave the room with your heart”. Hinnom, TX threatens to break out into a stadium-sized anthem, but instead of the massive chant-along zenith one would come to expect from a band like Arcade Fire, Vernon retains the mature, minimalist restraint of one like The National, and it is this constant, bottled up tension that adds such a depth and richness to the record. The stark piano opening of Wash. slowly builds up once again, firstly with Vernon’s deeply emotive falsetto and then with a string section that hints at expanding into a full orchestra before the crescendo breaks down once again. The track’s uneasy, cryptic lyrics (“I’m growing like the quickening hues/I’m telling darkness from lines on you”) merely enhance its power.

Calgary is one of the record’s closest moments to the soulful soft rock of Gayngs’ Relayted, and was unofficially the first single released from the album. Lisbon, OH is a subtle, almost ambient instrumental piece serving as an interlude before closer Beth/Rest, a stylistic departure from the rest of the record in its horn-led, unavoidably 80s adult contemporary stylings, complete with a lead guitar that could almost pass for a Van Halen B-side and a keyboard that wouldn’t sound out of place on any yacht rock compilation. The overall result is akin to Hall and Oates on barbiturates, and strangely closes the record on an anthemic, lighters-in-the-air moment of power-pop victoriousness.

Vernon has retained the isolated heartache that made For Emma, Forever Ago such a great record, but expanded his palette of stylistic influences and created a rich tapestry of widescreen, panoramic perfection that evokes vivid imagery of vast, sweeping woodland landscapes much like the one on the record’s cover. The arrangements themselves are near flawless, comparable to those of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, though essentially an antithesis to that record’s blissful, joyous moments of carefree youth. In that respect, Vernon can be considered one of the few truly great songwriters and arrangers in the music world, possessing the ability to create a timeless work of near-infinite depth, and Bon Iver merely underlines this assertion.