Where Bon Iver’s magnificent first album “For Emma, Forever Ago” chronicled a very particular low time and a place for mastermind Justin Vernon, this sophomore set is a fleshier recollection of what happens when he stepped back into the light.
Granted, “Bon Iver” is no summer picnic, but it contains less ache, and more stretching out, and into natural habitats. Fire, ice, soil, lakes, valleys, the moon and stars make up this 10-track map, adorned with city names, which then turns its focus on the rise of a chest, or pools in the eyes of his subjects. These location-specific songs each are little vignettes and moments of Vernon’s shaped into odd poetry and romantics, like mundane daily details turned into outright whoppers.
It begins with that surprising yet serene falsetto of Vernon’s, which soars like never before on “Holocene” and gently barks in harmony on “Towers.” There’s also his vernacular, which trips and trickles (and occasionally thuds) with some nonsense, some context and always lavish in the round and clumsy sound of vowels. “Pressed against the pane could see the veins and there was poison out / resting in a raze the inner claims I hadn’t breadth to shake,” he relishes in “Michicant,” which succeeds at a cute pun in its title and as an enchanting waltz, with steel, moaning horns and a bicycle bell.
And like that bell, Vernon and his team of vets (like Colin Stetson and arranger Rob Moose) dot the topography with weird left-field textures like the Bruce Honsby hat-tip “Beth/Rest” and “Hinnom, TX.” The latter experiments with bass and sub-bass poking out, the auto-tune of “Woods” making a return and a sonic stretch like that of Animal Collective. It’s not the best tune on here, but it’s a good way to stretch out.
Guitar amps and processors seem to heat up the other cold and dark destinations, like steel player Greg Leisz-enhanced “Wash.,” “Minnesota, WI” and Milwaukee in “Holocene.” Single “Calgary,” which I reviewed here, has an underdog of a bass line and a guitar that doubles Vernon’s harsher head-voice on the bridge. “Perth’s” opening guitar riff reminds me of the salutary strains of “Skinny Love” from the last set; this one gives away to bleating drums and a boiling horns section. It’s a sad and strong opener, one of the best first songs from an album this year.
These years between “For Emma” have treated this songwriter well; he likely benefitted as a soul and quasi-R&B singer from his endeavors with Kanye West, who helped shape his dazzling rise to prominence. He obviously made some well-suited musical kindred with Sean Carey and other bandmates. The road has always been a source of inspiration, but Vernon’s many pit stops have bred some masterful lines for that idea book, even when they’re not fully realized (I’m looking at you, “Wash.”). And just when these songs seem to verge on schmaltzy territory, they’re over, or they break-off into instrumentals, or – hell – like nine-track “Emma,” the album’s over before you know it. Vernon obviously excelled at the whole skeletal isolation thing; that restraint here is challenged and does just as well.