Album of the Month’ 4/5 Mojo
“Bon Iver possesses all of the austere beauty and understated emotiveness of its predecessor” 5/5 Uncut
“In purely musical terms, Justin Vernon may just be the most important figure in popular music right now”
5/5 The Independent
“Bon Iver remains rooted in the emotional sincerity that made Vernon’s debut so mesmerizing” 5/5 The Guardian
“Our love intensifies” 5/5 Time Out
“If his last album struck a chord, this one strikes dozens” 5/5 Evening Standard
“5/5” ‘Album of the Week’ Sunday Times
“5/5” The Sun
“Bon Iver is nothing short of hypnotic” 5/5 Sunday Express
“One of the defining vocalists of our times” 4/5 ‘Album of the Week’ Daily Telegraph
“Vernon’s focus has widened but his strange siren song is just as alluring” ‘Album of the Week’ The Observer
“The self-titled follow-up drips with beauty” 4/5 ‘Album of the Week’ Sunday Mirror
‘Album of the Week’ Indie on Sunday
‘Album of the Week’ Music Week
“He’s out of the woods and the view is beautiful” 4/5 Q
“Bon Iver is a beguiling, heartfelt treasure” 4/5 Metro
“Bon Iver is a beautiful swoon of an album” Sunday Times
“Breathtaking” 4.5/5 Attitude
“A wonderful and worthy follow up” 8/10 Clash
“Bon Iver is a substantial step forward” Word
“Looks set to wow people all over again” Diva
“Justin Vernon’s wordless falsetto pricks your heart in places few other singers can reach” Grazia
“A glorious celebration of – and experimentation with – sound” 4/5 Record Collector
“4/5” Daily Mail
“4/5” Mail on Sunday
“4/5” Daily Mirror
“4/5” The Fly
It has been quite a year for the band, with End of Year praise everywhere from Clash, The Fly, Word, NME, Mojo, Uncut and The Guardian. Bon Iver also bagged Q’s ‘Album of the Year’ award and have been nominated for a mighty four Grammys. A rather successful ‘difficult’ second album all told.
When Justin Vernon emerged from the wilds of Wisconsin in 2008 with his Bon Iver project, and the startling debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, perhaps none of us quite realised the magnitude of this unique talent. Not only did he capture hearts across the globe, but For Emma also attained beyond gold sales in the UK, and the follow up EP ‘Blood Bank’ debuted at #14 on the Billboard Top 200 and the Top 40 UK in 2009. In the intervening months and years, Vernon has collaborated non-stop on entirely new projects in varying genres with Gayngs’ sassy innovation on the Relayted album, and Volcano Choir, a freeform adventure with fellow Wisconsin musicians Collections of Colonies of Bees on the album Unmap. He also duetted with St Vincent, appearing on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack, while Peter Gabriel recorded a cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ and Bon Iver reciprocated with ‘Come Talk To Me’ for a Record Store Day limited edition 7” release.
And then there was the time when Kanye West called up and invited Vernon to pop down to his studio in Hawaii to collaborate on the hip hop auteur’s astoundingly bold opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West sampled ‘Woods’ (taken from ‘Blood Bank’) on the track ‘Lost in the World’. Vernon also appeared – alongside Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj – on ‘Monster’, which proved to be one of the tracks of last year. He also appeared on four other tracks and has since performed live with Kanye on numerous occasions, including the 2011 Coachella Festival.
For Vernon, having these varied and amazing experiences seemed to come as a direct result of how For Emma was conceived and created.
“I was truly expressing myself with that record, and for me, the lesson was – This mentality is being rewarded,” Vernon explains without a hint of pomposity. “Every day you have a choice to actually try to challenge your surroundings or yourself just a little bit, to have that opportunity to do something new. In a Pavlovian way, every opportunity that has come my way, be it Volcano Choir, or Gayngs, or Kanye or anybody, I look at each opportunity to strip away any tendencies of using comfort to do my job. I’ve tried my hardest to do the best job I could, and if I get lazy, I think I would hate myself! It’s this weird metaphor that has infiltrated the rest of my life, too. I don’t think of Bon Iver as a band name, it’s an opportunity to grow and not know what the future is, and not to be afraid and not apologise and express yourself and not buy into anything that seems like it’s commonplace or broken.”
So when it came to recording the follow up to For Emma, Justin Vernon headed to his hometown of Eau Claire.
“Bon Iver is about Winter, and the Winter seems to be the equaliser around here,” Vernon says. “It’s the all knowing thing, it’s more constant than sleep, everyone deals with it and everyone is in it. It’s about what Winter means, what everyone goes through, not just the season, but the death of anything, the birth of anything.”
Here we find a clue to the scope of the new album, entitled Bon Iver. If there is a theme, it’s about people reconnecting with seasons and lifecycles – opening track ‘Perth’ is the birth, and the concluding song ‘Beth/Rest’ is the death. The album is an open love letter to Eau Claire, and an invitation for the listener to acknowledge where they’re from, in an intimate and connected way. The album tracks are titled as place names – some real, some metaphors or hybrids.
“All of these place names have a story, or are an emblem for a feeling or a notion,” Vernon explains. “All the songs helped me colour the other songs, if that makes sense. The first five tracks are based all on guitar parts. But even in ‘Minnesota’ there are elements of weird 80s synths, elements of saxophone, in ‘Holocene’ there’s a digital synthesiser going on, even though the song is truly based on a guitar loop. Then the second half of the record is all piano and keyboard based. So there is a division, but all the songs feed into each other and have elements of each other in themselves.”
Bon Iver was recorded and mixed at April Base Studios, a remodeled veterinarian’s clinic located in rural Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The main recording space is constructed over a defunct indoor pool attached to the clinic.
“It’s an unique space and destination; it’s our home out here,” says Vernon, who purchased the structure with his brother in late 2008 with the sole intention of converting it into his ideal recording studio. “It’s been a wonderful freedom, working in a place we built. It’s also three miles from the house I grew up in, and just ten minutes from the bar where my parents met.”
The creation of Bon Iver was a three-year process, and Vernon says the completion of the studio paralleled the completion of the album. “When I finally came home to hunker down for a solid stretch there was a feeling of solid ground and an opportunity for liberation waiting in the space for me.”
“Bon Iver is often equated with just me,” says Vernon, “but you are who surrounds you, and for Bon Iver I wanted to invite those voices as musical catalysts.” Thus on the track ‘Beth/Rest’ and throughout the album, we hear the pedal steel of Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell), the uniquely layered low end of Colin Stetson’s (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire) saxophones, the riffing of Mike Lewis’ (Happy Apple, Andrew Bird) altos and tenors, and the lush horns of C.J. Camerieri (Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens). Bon Iver regulars Sean Carey, Mike Noyce and Matt McCaughan contributed vocals, drums and production, Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, The National) helped with arranging and added strings, and fellow members of Volcano Choir, Jim Schoenecker and Tom Wincek provided processing.
It’s all there right away, in the thicker-stringed guitar and military snare of ‘Perth’, and ‘Minnesota, WI.’ Anyone who had a single listen to For Emma will peg Justin Vernon’s vocals immediately, but there is a sturdiness – an insistence – to Bon Iver that allows him to escape the cabin in the woods without burning it to the ground. ‘Holocene’ opens with simple finger-picking. The vocal is regret spun hollow and strung on a wire. Then the snare-beat breaks and drives us forward and up and up….The magical poise and restraint of ‘Michicant’. The vocals in ‘Hinnom, TX’ ease to the muffled depths, while the instrumentation remains sparse and cosmic.
“Hinnom is a place in Jerusalem. Hinnom was a Jewish place for burying strangers. The Texas part comes from a Lucinda Williams song ‘Fruits of My Labour’ from World Without Tears. She says, ‘I finally did it baby, I got out of Le Grange’ – there’s so much pain in her voice. For me, Hinnom, Texas is a place to bury the stranger in yourself, a place to bury past selves.”
From the tenderised piano and sprouting strings of arguable album highlight ‘Wash’, we arrive at future single ‘Calgary’ – a worship song to everything For Emma mourned.
“Calgary is a metaphor, I’ve never been there,” Vernon reveals. “It’s about what you don’t know. It’s a hopeful song, kind of like a wedding vow song for someone you’ve never met. It’s saying ‘Look, if I do end up running into you along the line, I don’t know who you are, but I feel like there’s someone out there, in whatever sense of true love I still believe in after all the shit I’ve been through’, it’s inviting that mystery into your life and believing in it.”
At the point in the final track ‘Beth/Rest’ when Vernon sings, “I ain’t livin’ in the dark no more” it is clear he isn’t dancing in the sunshine, but rather shading toward a new light. It also provides the most ‘Woods’-like moment on the album in terms of singular voice and production.
Bon Iver is Justin Vernon returning to former haunts with a new spirit. The reprises are there – solitude, quietude and hope – but always a rhythm arises, a pulse vivified by gratitude and grace notes, some as bright as a bicycle bell. The winter, the myth, has faded to just that, and this is the new momentary present. From ‘Perth’ to ‘Beth’ we go full circle and reach the summation to a remarkable second album.