Review – “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”

Not even angelic vocals and top-tier production can compensate for Justin Vernon’s boring melodrama.

Raghav Mehta

 

“Bon Iver, Bon Iver”

Artist: Bon Iver

Label: Jagjaguwar Records

Bon IverâÄôs hugely successful 2007 debut âÄúFor Emma, Forever AgoâÄù did two things. First, it reminded everyone that Wisconsin still exists. Second, it turned nobody-songwriter Justin Vernon into an internationally renowned indie superstar.

Since his meteoric rise, Vernon has smoothly adjusted to his role, garnering praise by musicians from Kanye West to rock deities like Neil Young.  

With the arrival of Bon IverâÄôs self-titled follow-up, Vernon finds himself at an artistic crossroads after a long, hard winter.

Like its predecessor, the albumâÄôs strengths lie in creating an ambience. But VernonâÄôs not interested in rehashing his minimalistic log cabin diaries. This time around, heâÄôs embracing bigger, grander sounds. And itâÄôs an apropos departure, given his commercial ascent and burgeoning audience.

Replete with a rousing horn section, taut snares and assorted white noise, the opener âÄúPerthâÄù eases the listener into the albumâÄôs electro soundscape. The soft-to-loud dynamics of the songwriting provide each track with an atmospheric quality that recalls some of the more memorable moments on the debut.

Lyrically, the album is personal and heady, and it revisits familiar themes of loss and isolation. In âÄúHolocene,âÄù VernonâÄôs signature, thin-as-a-needle falsetto soars over an atmospheric din of rattling percussion and somber guitar, singing: âÄúnot the needle, nor the thread / the lost decree / saying nothing / thatâÄôs enough for me.âÄù

But unlike fan favorites like âÄúFlumeâÄù and âÄúSkinny Love,âÄù Vernon fails to deliver much of an emotional impact. Amidst all the grandiosity and studio ritz, his writing lacks a certain intimacy.

While the widescreen wash of songs like âÄúHinnom, TXâÄù and âÄúMinnesota, WIâÄù succeed in interpreting the lonely sprawl of winter, VernonâÄôs aversion to hooks and preoccupation with atmospherics makes for rather dull songwriting. The arrangements avoid clutter, but the songs unravel at a sluggish pace with little reward in return.

However, âÄúBon IverâÄù has its moments. âÄúHoloceneâÄù shimmers with sterling production, while closing track âÄúBeth/RestâÄù is an âÄô80s pop throwback that sounds like a modern day homage to Phil Collins. ThereâÄôs some redeeming value here but most of the time itâÄôs about as exciting as watching snow melt.

Some fans will welcome VernonâÄôs transition into the digital world, but itâÄôs unlikely this sophomore effort will warrant much replay value, even among Bon Iver faithful. Vernon might excel as a vocalist, but as a songwriter heâÄôs unadventurous and his talent is limited. If âÄúFor Emma, Forever AgoâÄù was his log cabin magnum opus, then consider âÄúBon IverâÄù his waterfront mansion flop.

 

2/4 Stars