By Al Kaufman
Most fans know the story by now. Justin Vernon, a sensitive (bearded, naturally) guy from Wisconsin holed himself up in a cabin in the woods with his guitar and wrote a painstakingly beautiful and intimate album about a break-up. He gave himself the moniker Bon Iver, a variation of the French bon hiver, which means “good winter.” For Emma, Forever Ago caught the ears of Kanye West, who asked Vernon to contribute his vocals from his song “Woods” to “Lost In the World.” A star was born.
Vernon has shed his solitary mountain man image on his self-titled second release. He incorporates his band fully into his new chamber pop style. The music here feels more like movements than individual songs, all feeding into one another. He has moved from folk to low-fi chamber pop, a sound that works just as well for conveying his most intimate thoughts and feelings.
Although Vernon’s lyrics are practically indecipherable, he seems to have an ongoing theme about about states and places (both actual and of the mind). Each song title is a place, either real or made-up (“Michicant” and “Hinnom, TX”). “Holocene” simply refers to the period on Earth since the Ice Age, of which the last major activity was the Wisconsin Glaciation, which greatly altered the landscape of North America. Here that event is a metaphor for possibly a break-up, but it’s hard to tell. Over a gentle melody, his layered vocals are sweet and soulful. As he utters lines like, “… and at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/Jagged vacance, thick with ice” it is obvious he is dealing with real pain in a way that only he can truly understand.
Vernon’s vocals are the best instrument on the album. He clearly wears his beard on his sleeve. While at times he recalls Peter Gabriel in full ballad mode (most notably on “Michicant”), at other times he seems to effortlessly reach notes only a castrated cat could, yet does so with grace and style. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what he is saying, you know exactly how he feels.
Bon Iver play the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Thursday, July 28. The event is sold out.