Jun 20, 2011 Web Exclusive
It's astonishing that after For Emma, Forever Ago created a snapshot portrait of the artist post breakup—angry, depressed, beaten—Justin Vernon could make a record that's so positively upbeat. Few records in this day and age can manage to be so hopeful and uplifting without sounding like a greeting card. If credit is to be given to Kanye West, whom Vernon worked with during his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions, surely West will give it to himself, but there truly is something to the idea that being vetted by and coming in contact with such an outsized artist could do nothing but help an insular talent like Vernon. Bon Iver is all the better for it.
"Never gonna break/Never gonna break," Vernon repeats on "Minnesota, WI" and this sentiment is repeated throughout the album, both in the lyrical content and the resilience of the music itself. There's a confidence and strength to Bon Iver that comes as quite a shock after For Emma, Forever Ago, which felt more like someone at the very last strand of their fraying rope. It was a last gasp. Bon Iver is a breath of clean air.
"Minnesota, WI" contains some down-tuned banjo picking, a strange combination of sad sounds from an upbeat instrument. Similarly, Vernon's voice, a high-pitched, full wail, which sounds like the backend of an echo, can accomplish both the sturdiness of encouragement and the frailty of disappointment in one breath. "And at once I knew I was not magnificent," he sings on "Holocene," and the realization feels more like a relief than a disappointment, especially because it leads him to clarity, "I could see for miles, miles, miles." "Baby, pasts are slain," he states more plainly in "Hinnom, TX."
If this is Bon Iver's thesis, that good can come from darkness once the truth is acknowledged, then Vernon has hit the nail on the head. It's a logical progression from Emma, and one that few artists have been able to make. Most try to return to their wallowing, to mine the same material that connected them with their audience in the first place. But Vernon deserves tremendous credit for wanting to express his hope and his joy. What's even more remarkable is how effectively he transmits it without turning his back on his sound. This is a brave and emboldening record in a frightened world. (www.boniver.org)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 9/10