This is the second piece I did for The Skinny’s chart. This one came in at number two for the year.
There’s a set of symptoms that are common to those who spend an extended time socially isolated, including social anxiety, depression and an unwillingness to readjust and coexist with others. A cursory glance at Justin Vernon’s recent discography suggests that indie’s very own Christopher McCandless hasn’t struggled with the latter. Since returning from the Wisconsin log cabin that helped make him famous, he’s played a starring role on Anaïs Mitchell’s folk operaHadestown, pitched up alongside Jay Z, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross on Kanye West’s last smash, lent his pseudo-R&B falsetto to a couple of Gayngs records and laid the foundations for an exciting project with James Blake. It’s little wonder Vernon’s had to cry off with exhaustion (he recently described the moment in which he turned down a collaboration with Neil Young because he was too knackered).
But there’s a reason why the queue to work with Justin Vernon is snaking round the block, and if it was evident on Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago then the follow up hammers it home with aplomb. The debut presented a man with an uncanny ability to take the emotions in his head and transfer them first to his sleeve, and then to tape. For Emma is a wonderfully melodic, yet painfully bleak tale of love and loss that had ‘hit record’ plastered all over it. And sure enough, it brought Vernon and Bon Iver to the eyes of the world.
Bon Iver, though, is the epitome of the experimental bent that’s taken Vernon from project to project and genre to genre. Gone are the strummed guitars, and (reasonably) traditional song structures; replaced, instead, with layers of intricately plucked arpeggios and dense, atmospheric production. He’s spoken at length about trying to change his vocals and his role within Bon Iver, and they’ve both morphed beyond recognition. Vernon’s voice, which was wounded and cardinal on For Emma, is but an instrument in the maelstrom, even more processed and distorted, and predominantly used in a register above what would be comfortable for most men (the vocals aren’t to everyone’s liking, though. To quote an email from a fellow scribe, for the sake of balance: “It’s pish – no man can sing ENTIRELY IN FALSETTO for a whole record, it’s not allowed!”).
When the first album came out, all the talk was about “that Bon Iver guy”. This year, it’s most certainly about “Bon Iver the band”. Taking his lead from some of the artists he’s worked with (Kanye and Mitchell, particularly), he’s surrounded himself with talent (the stellar bass saxophonist Colin Stetson is an especially noteworthy addition), and worked with them to take his songs to new and fascinating places. Bon Iver is a producer’s album, with the visionary Vernon at the helm. Far from inducing anthrophobia, his spell in the woods seems to have nurtured dexterity in collusion, which can only get more interesting in the years to come.
The lyrics also suggest a change in perspective – a rebirth of sorts. They’re as intricate as the music, but more difficult to penetrate than those on For Emma. Gone is the plaintive navel-gazing, too. While some critics became bogged down in the references to drinking, drugging, or both, they seem almost secondary – or allegorical. One interpretation is that Bon Iver is about changing: coming of age and as a result, coming to terms with yourself. Holocene, named for the geological age we’ve been living in for 10,000 years, is the perfect example. Over a looping guitar riff, snapshots of the author’s life and memories swirl around, intensifying, before culminating in Vernon’s ‘Zen’ moment as a songwriter, and the lyric: ‘And I knew at once, I was not magnificent.’ Bon Iver is Justin Vernon growing into the real world, having spent such a long time trying to block it out. He’s accepting and embracing what’s around him, realising his own bit part role in it as he does. Ironically, he was able to discover, capture and articulate his ‘oneness’ better in an old veterinary laboratory in Fall Creek, Wisconsin than he was in a rustic cabin in the wilderness (and despite its synthetic genetics, the album has more nods to nature, too).
Fans of continuity, look away now. For as great as this album is, the only clues it provides as to where Vernon will go next is its polarity from anything he’s done before. Members of Wilco have been speaking recently about the moment Jim O’Rourke entered theirYankee, Hotel, Foxtrot sessions and shredded everything they’d recorded, leaving them with a core song, which he promptly yoked onto a pair of stallions and shooed outta town. Vernon seems to work in a similar way, as is highlighted by the early results of his dabbling with James Blake. Whatever he turns his hand to next, it probably won’t be what you expect. He may have lost the lustre of recluse, but he’s gained a hell of a lot more in its stead.