Those fans of Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago who find themselves confused by his new album should bear in mind that Justin Vernon didn't really plan for any of this to happen. Bon Iver was likely intended as a one-off fluke to purge some feelings Vernon had as a result of the break-up of a band and a relationship. It was an album that, in all probability, should have been relegated to the obscure dustbin of history, embraced by the two thousand or so who happened upon it, while his next musical project would have been his real ticket to fame. But sometimes quality wins out, even for a modest singer/songwriter album, and so Vernon was catapulted to the top of the indie heap and further still, collaborating with Kanye West and having his debut album praised by luminaries as unlikely as Moby. Still, it's probably best to think of Bon Iver, Bon Iver as the “next project from Justin Vernon” and not as “the follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago.”
On first listen, this is an album of seemingly formless tracks, as if Vernon was attempting to hybridize ambient/post-rock with singer/songwriter-isms but missed the mark entirely. Indeed, this record often bears more resemblance to his collaboration with Collections Of Colonies Of Bees released under the Volcano Choir name than it does the debut. However, like Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover, another album of intricate songs which work best as a whole instead of as discrete tracks, Bon Iver, Bon Iver eventually reveals its secrets, its own sense of internal logic. Still, this music is not as radical a departure as other bands have attempted. It's more akin to MGMT's Congratulations or Radiohead's Kid A in terms of a fairly popular band changing their approach to music without radically altering the feel or tone of said music. Bon Iver is still making contemplative and bittersweet stuff albeit with slightly more abstraction in form and content. 'Calgary' in particular keeps threatening to achieve some kind of emotional peak that never arrives, sounding instead to these ears like Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes' on quaaludes and/or pot. A similar 80s vibe overwhelms 'Beth/Rest', a song I either hate or love every time I hear it, sounding like (I'm not making this up) the closing ballad to an 80s film.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver doesn't trade in hooks or immediate emotional resonance. You'll need to work at it in many listening situations, whether just-this-side-of-too-loud in your car or at barely audible levels while reading a book on your couch. Furthermore, the greater diversity of instrumentation and ideas, along with a fantastic use of Vernon's now-patented falsetto, proves, if nothing else, that he is neither standing still nor throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Repeat listens reveal as many differences as similarities. The dreamy waltz of 'Michicant' could easily have fit onto the chilly Midwestern laments of For Emma, Forever Ago. 'Wash.' is, somehow, even more stripped down than anything from Bon Iver's debut, mainly relying on minimalist piano and faint acoustic guitar, with some swelling strings to provide needed emotional punctuations. If this is a record more about moments and ideas than songs or hooks, then 'Wash.' contains some of Bon Iver, Bon Iver's greatest triumphs, calling back to the intimacy of the debut but approaching from a different direction entirely.
Whether Vernon has here succeeded at establishing his artistic longevity, I don't know. I do know that his artistic credibility is without question; as with MGMT's Congratulations, this is a clear case of someone protesting to the world, “I am an artist interested in being creative and not just capitalizing on good will to make a quick buck.” Even if you ultimately don't like or understand Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the notion that Vernon isn't going to kowtow to the mainstream and remake the same kind of album over and over should be enough assurance to ride out a perceived misstep. As for me, I think this is a ballsy album that everyone should hear, unique and vital, the kind of thing that re-teaches me that I haven't heard it all when it comes to music.