If you’re reading this before the 22nd of June then I’ll tell you now that this review will cause you to bite even harder on that bit of anticipation, but if you’re reading this after the 22nd of June then what the hell are you doing wasting your time with this insignificant review? Why, in God’s name, aren’t you doing anything other than filling every spare moment of your life listening to this album?!
Let us now begin proper.
For Emma, Forever Ago was something of a musical anomaly. No album should so convincingly unite critics and fans alike. No album should cripple you emotionally like that. To be left so oxymoronic by music is staggering; so joyous in its beauty, yet so melancholic in its sorrow. This, its self-titled follow up, is the natural continuation of Bon Iver. This time around there is more complexity to the music, from the outset there is more happening in the background, the soundscapes are bigger and bolder while losing none of their heart-felt emotion.
If you’re planning on fully committing yourself to your first listen, then clear a whole afternoon because you are going to be hitting repeat. A lot. There’s so much lurking in the shadows. From the lacings of violin trough out, through the electric synthetics of ‘Hinnom, TX’ and on to the building bliss of ‘Calgary’, you are going to treat your ears to this multiple times.
There’s a definite feeling of more. More (electric) guitar, bigger drum beats and more subtle sampling. ‘Perth’ begins with fluctuating guitar draped with the wails of a choir. Justin Vernon’s vocals glide their way in as the guitar begins to build and the regimental drums mimic their every move. ‘Perth’ transitions itself fluently into ‘Minnesota, WI’, where bluegrass strumming meets twinkling synths and rapturous effects pedals.
Only two songs in and you’ll be salivating at how effortless it all sounds. Making music of this quality shouldn’t appear to be so simple; it just makes everybody else look bad. Take ‘Towers’, it’s just a bit of guitar, a bit of swooning and a backdrop of trumpets and violins, but the way it all falls together is just staggering.
This eponymous record doesn’t let up going into its second half. ‘Hinnom, TX’ is awash with rippling keys and pin point placed static, while the contrast in vocals from verse to chorus showcases the myriad of talent to emanate from Vernon’s lips. ‘Wash.’ is led off by piano chords and the crackling of an old record scraping the pin of the turntable. It’s once again the violins that are the star of the track; they continue to give a new dimension. And there’s something to the tone of the vocals that is hard to fully comprehend, it’s hard to put your finger on the quality that sends this song soaring beyond almost all else.
‘Calgary’ is this album’s ‘Skinny Love’. It’s the track that this album will be known for. It’s almost a full realisation of where Bon Iver are as a band. It entices you with the foreplay that is its building synthesizer introduction before its supplemented by the beat and finally the guitar, that can only be that of Bon Iver. Every aspect falls into place for the pinnacle, the vocals step up an octave and pure beauty is realised. Electronics have cleary been stepped up a notch all over this record and the bands total mastery of the skill is realised on interlude ‘Lisbon, OH’. But as quickly as it is realised that mastery is defiled by ‘Beth / Rest’, the closer. It just doesn’t fit. And this isn’t just a flippant comment about a song on first listen. After two dozen listens it still doesn’t meet the overall tone. It’s all garish keyboards and unsettling guitar riffs and it’s a real shame.
Was anybody really expecting anything less than sublime? There are very few bands/musicians around right now capable of making two records of outstanding quality, let alone one. For Emma, Forever Ago was written in a cabin in solitude and depicts love, loss, loneliness and guilt. Bon Iver, however, sees the band leave that cabin of solitude and remorse and enter the wild, open wilderness; it’s the musical interpretation of picturesque landscapes, with electronics reflecting an ever growing harmony between urban influences and the landscapes they’re often forced upon.
From Rhys Morgan.