Justin Vernon says that one day he realised he couldn’t write songs anymore. Not like he had done until then, that is, with his acoustic guitar and the more conventional parameters that gave life to “For Emma, Forever Ago” (4AD, 2008). After that mental block and an absolute reset, a change of direction and a sonic renovation became key to finding his way back. The finishing touches of this revolution were the singer-songwriter’s experiences with Kanye West and Gayngs in a series of projects that seemed completely opposite to his own, both musically and creatively, and which ended up having some influence on his comeback. Whether this is true or not, or whether it’s the truth mythologised or simply a promotional stunt, the truth is that, at all times, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” transmits the feeling of searching and creative redefinition that comes from completely changing the composition process, both with regards to the structure and the use of the instruments and in the manipulation of the vocal registers and the appearance of melodies and resources.
While his debut is a record with eminent folk roots, in the tradition of Neil Young and other icons of the genre, “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” is an album by a band that doesn’t have one clear style, basically because there are many of them. With the help of a band featuring sax player Colin Stetson and guitarist Greg Leisz, Vernon is influenced by pop and soft-rock from the eighties, amplifies his palette of expressive resources (brass instruments, choruses, percussive intensity, ambient passages), does some outstanding sequencing (all the pieces come connected, without pauses or changes of subject, all gathered with good taste and vision) and gives his songs a simply irresistible twist. While the easy way would have been to repeat the schemes of his first effort and persist in a winning formula, the Wisconsin singer-songwriter chose a different path this time, one laden with traps and dangers, much more risky and at times even controversial (“Beth/Rest” will leave nobody indifferent), leading to two big conclusions: there’s a lot of life after “For Emma, Forever Ago”, and Justin Vernon isn’t your typical singer-songwriter.
The military drumrolls and furious guitars on opening track “Perth” are the best possible warning for those who aren’t paying attention: Bon Iver has something new to offer the world. “Minnesota, WI” is reminiscent of late-seventies Peter Gabriel, while “Holocene”, one of the best moments on the record, takes the most recognisable version of his sound towards territories of bigger expressive intensity. It’s on the second half of the album, after the magnificent “Towers” and “Michicant”, when the strong wind takes us by surprise. “Hinnom, TX”, a very Flaming Lips-like track, gives way to “Wash”, the highlight of the album for yours truly, a majestic mid-tempo piano song, and “Calgary”, probably the tune that best symbolises and represents the sonic reorientation of the band. And from there, to the final surprise: “Beth/Rest”, an eighties ballad with synthesiser, electronic beat and guitar solo that is bewildering at first but becomes a guilty pleasure after a couple of listens (it sounds like Phil Collins or Paul Young), a calculated and meditated cherry on the cake for a record nobody counted on but is incredibly good.