For Emma Was Forever Ago
Everything changed about Bon Iver after For Emma, Forever Ago. By now everyone’s heard the story of the months-long voluntary solitude he embarked on in the woods of north Wisconsin. His songs have been heavily licensed for primetime dramas, he let “Woods” get taken over by Kanye West and guested on the hip-hop maven’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and he’s appeared on all the huge festival lineups: Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, Sasquatch, etc. The success has been a bit of a surprise, and the fans were rabid for his follow-up. His self-titled sophomore effort, out since June, has been successful in many critics’ eyes but it’s not anything like For Emma, for better or worse.
He’s reported to have said that, despite showing what control he’s capable of in the studio, he wanted to be more of an architect and wanted to let in guests who could alter the direction and tone of the record. He brought in Colin Stetson, a renowned bass saxophonist who tours with the likes of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre; Greg Leisz, a legendary lap and pedal-steel guitarist; and notably, a set of horns for the finale flourish on “Beth/Rest.” Whereas songs on For Emma were quite spare, charming in their stark nature and acoustic simplicity, Bon Iver‘s are fuller, longer, and more complex.
The instrumentation is rich but a little arbitrary; the keys, choir, horns, and woodwinds are helpful for the development of his sound, but feel a little more on trend than organic. Perhaps the auto-tuning he experienced with Kanye rubbed off on him, because in the album opener, “Perth,” he uses these effects to middling success. It takes a couple minutes for the song to pick up some momentum, for the martial drums to fill out the song and the choir to back up Justin Vernon’s metallic-sounding falsetto.
Each track is said to be related to a location, some of them as specific as a town. But pretty much all of these towns are expansive middle American locales: “Minnesota, WI,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Lisbon, OH.” So does this mean charmless, cold, idle or uncivilized? We have no idea of knowing. There’s not exactly a sense of wanderlust or even reverence for spaces and places to be gleaned from these songs. There are several moments throughout the record that feel beautiful, perfectly executed and achingly emotive. But which songs those moments are on is lost in the fray; this is a record that begins and flows to the end with very few memorable choruses.
There are practically no singles on this record. “Calgary,” “Holocene,” and “Towers” were released as singles but none of them (maybe the three-minute “Towers”) has much radio appeal. The songs here wander through tempo changes, mood swings, and movements. Maybe on For Emma we were floored by his unique voice, but now that we know him it isn’t exciting enough to carry the record. We’re forced to pay more attention to songwriting, his instrumentation, the production and the overall theme he seems to be working towards.
It may be impossible for a young artist doused with success and acclaim to eschew the trappings of the recording industry’s pressures. Bon Iver may have done that to a certain degree here, but it’s not without a certain wink and nod to a place he’s proud to be holding on to in indie-rock stardom.