Bon Iver's folky, meditative 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago was one of the most beloved indie albums of the '00s. Since then, frontman Justin Vernon has appeared on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and become a sought-after producer. The Wisconsin band will release its long-awaited second full-length, Bon Iver, on June 21st (it leaked earlier this week after iTunes accidentally released it); the 10-song album is a little bigger-sounding than their debut, and comes with a few curveballs, but their trademark elusive beauty is still intact. Rolling Stone's Jon Dolan went through the album track-by-track.
"Perth" – Opening decidedly bright, with Beach Boys harmonies, sun-striped electric strum and a march-tempo snare drum, the first track on Bon Iver suggests something a bit more expansive than For Emma, Forever Ago's sweetly austere cabin-fever folk. Flares of distorted guitars, booming synth-drums and a clarion horn section promise gigantic possibility just around the dust-spackled corner. But as is often the case, Justin Vernon's singing is gnomic: what's his multi-tracked voice saying? "You’re a motor for a moth / I'm gonna build you a loft"? Or is it "I like my oatmeal soft / We recorded this on Hoth"? Who can tell with this dude?
"Minnesota, WI" – What's that? A groove? An almost Afro-poppy one, in fact! You could imagine Paul Simon singing over this. A husky voiced Vernon evokes rambling and roots, spinning pictures and water running through a valley (images of transience and confluence), as a supple acoustic guitar interweaves with reflective pedal steel. A farty fuzz-noise and a push-pull rhythm rough things up. "Never gonna break / Never gonna break," goes the refrain. But the music punches beyond the quiescence we expect from this band.
"Holocene" – A trademark Vernon trance-poet epistle: Ginger 12-string picking pushed along by gently shaken shaker and brushed snare drum. The lyrics, delivered in indie-Peter Cetera falsetto, imply spiritual awakening, with nods to the Who's "I Can See For Miles" and a mention of Christmas. But it’s the modernist mumble-folk halo vibe that counts – late afternoon Six Point and oranges in a sunny chair, that sort of thing.
"Towers" – The strumming here recalls Sandy Denny's autumnal English folk lullaby "By the Time It Gets Tired," one of the most beautiful, satisfied love songs ever (and Yo La Tengo's finest cover). Good choice, that's the tradition Bon Iver work in, and Vernon does it justice with a song that may be about girlfriend-as-tower or his girlfriend climbing a tower or being in a relationship that feels like a tower or him and his girlfriend being distant towers. Look, sorry, he multi-tracks himself like 80 times here and still doesn't sing into the mic. Sheesh. The dudes who found bin Laden would have a hard time hunting down the exact meaning to some of these songs.
"Michicant" – All right, here we go: this one is definitely about childhood – memories of swimming and changing seasons and fear and blankets. Eventually, we wander off into mid-Beatles psychedelic territory – backwards tape folderol, unemployment line-on-Penny Lane horns, chimes, what not, etc.
"Hinnom, TX" –This is a fluttering synth-pop ballad with another baritone lead vocal that cuts against those trademark Bon Iver falsetto harmonies (this time with a little of TV On the Radio's Pere Ubu-doo-wop in there), signifying gorgeousness mixed with opacity. The voices are just instruments, conduits of emotion without clarity or context but they're moving nonetheless.
"Wash." – As in Washington. Most of these songs are named after places but none of them seem to be happening anywhere, which evokes between-ness (fading memory, aimless aging, moods you can't break, head-colds you can’t shake). A spare, gently lifting piano progression and lyrics that seem to evoke searching for comfort in the familiar (a bed, a home, a friend) and breaking down when it isn’t there. "Eyes too sore for sight," goes a line. Hopefully, he'll Visine them shits before he hops in the car and makes for the next destination.
"Calgary" – Canada's cowboy country is evoked via high-lonesome almost-a cappella singing that fades into rolling tom-toms booming as spaciously as the Great White North itself. Pretty soon a song emerges, a slowly driving new wave ballad – kinda like Modern English's "l Melt With You" on the wrong speed. "There's really nothing to this sound," go the vocals. No guys: there's nothing to the words, the sound is everything.
"Lisbon, OH" – Lisbon, OH: population 2788 (as of the 2000 census). Let's hope the Leslie Knope of Lisbon doesn’t adopt this as the theme song for this year's harvest festival, because the townsfolk might turn their jack-o-lantern carving knives into suicide blades. It's just a minute and half of blackhole feedback, a hi-hat that never finds a beat, a depressed EKG machine and some of the droopy ooze from a sewage processing plant on Brian Eno's Another Green World.
"Beth/Rest" – Ok, this one actually does sound like Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love," complete with Miami Vice-sex-scene sax/synth/guitar sprits. It's some serious stem-wear and pino noir Eighties yuppie make-out action. These guys must've really liked that smooth Destroyer record that came out last winter. Can't make out the words, of course, but it sounds like a breakup song – "such a robbery," goes a line. If it’s a Bon Iver song and there's a girl's name in the title, it's probably a break-up song. Vernon writing a requited love song is like AC/DC writing an album inspired by the novels of Doris Lessing. This one's kind of a weird way to go out but a very nice album all the same.