In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon described a recent encounter with an old friend. Congratulating him on his success, the friend said, “I’m just really happy and weirdly, wonderfully surprised that the world gets it.”
His friend spoke of Bon Iver’s first album, 2007’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” — an intimate, earthy acoustic set that earned Vernon praise from all kinds of musical corners. Vernon even joined Kanye West on six songs from West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” — one of the most unlikely musical collaborations in recent memory.
Bon Iver’s self-titled new album — his first since “For Emma, Forever Ago” — indeed tests the waters to see if the world still “gets it.” But judging from its No. 2 debut on the Billboard charts last week, it appears the world is willing to try.
“Bon Iver” is one of the quirkiest albums to make it so high on the charts in recent years — but such placement is a testament to the expectations the music world is placing on Bon Iver’s shoulders. And the new batch of tunes suggests Vernon is up for the challenge.
The album is, in a word, intriguing. With many layers of expansive, majestic instrumentals, the album quickly establishes itself as a rich tapestry of sound. And “sound” is really the key word here. Over its 40 minutes, the album gradually unravels in intriguing fashion, and it becomes much more about sound than songs.
Not that the songs aren’t great. “Perth,” the album’s first track, builds around an opening guitar line so beautifully cleansing it almost feels sacred. The arrangement on “Wash.,” with its dancing piano, intrepid string section and elevating pedal-steel guitar, is equally moving. Vernon’s multi-layered vocals drape themselves over all the tracks in classic Bon Iver fashion, creating some breathtaking soundscapes.
The arrangements on “Bon Iver” are its real triumph. They uncover Vernon as not only an expert songwriter, but a masterful arranger as well. While the arrangements on “For Emma, Forever Ago” were generally sparse, the sonic textures on “Bon Iver” are extremely intricate. But Vernon doesn’t bite off more than he can chew — it’s an expansion that, while slightly surprising in its scope, feels natural.
On “Holocene,” one of the album’s only acoustic-based songs, Vernon sings, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” For now, it seems we’ll have to respectfully disagree.
Artist: Bon Iver
Album: Bon Iver