For a while, I was worried that I didn’t like this record. I had really high expectations for it, and it was pleasant enough to listen to, but trying to think about it, I couldn’t really recall any distinct impressions it had made on me.
Having recognized this, my next few listens I tried to be more present. Listening more actively, I finally began to understand that the music seems amorphous at first listen because it’s so damn seamless. And I don’t mean in the concept-album-y kindof way, where there’s a narrative and the songs are linked. Many songs do bleed across track markers in how they begin or end, but that in and of itself isn’t enough to achieve what I’m trying to describe.
Nowhere on the record can you find a discontinuous jump from one song to the next. The transitions are perfect gradients from one style to the next, with each being distinct from the other, but in a way you really need to look for. If you aren’t paying attention, the whole record plays like 3 or 4 giant songs. Credit where credit is due, such an effect is difficult to achieve, with Vernon and his wide array of collaborators pulling it off flawlessly.
A favorite moment of mine occurs early on the record, during ‘Minnesota, WI‘. Often times I have a favorite part of a song: maybe that’s a hook, or a chorus, or just four or five notes of a bass line. I certainly have a favorite spot on this song:
The song is subdued and quiet, its fingerpicked melody drifts across the ethereal backing vocals, like fog over a frozen lake, until the 2:10 mark. Here, heavy distortion drops, and the song takes on an entirely different tone. It’s stronger, more defined, more sure. And after about a minute of that, it slides back into the style of the first half of the song. So desperately did I want a second round of that heavier sound, but you don’t get it. And that’s OK; in fact I’d go so far as to say the track is better for it.
Following that is ‘Holocene’, which is a fine enough song, but one which got a lot of buzz and excitement that I didn’t really understand.
The pairing of ‘Towers’ with ‘Michicant’ is also quite deft. The first is one of the more up-tempo songs on the record, and the latter is one of the slowest burners, but both have some of the records best lyrical moments, and seem to me different sides of the same coin.
I’m still a total sucker for the pre-release track ‘Calgary‘.
At first I was pretty bummed that more of the album didn’t have the same epic quality to it, slowly coming into focus as the seconds elapse. As it turns out, I was incredibly pleased with Bon Iver as a record, but there is a little part of me that wants to hear what a Justin Vernon record focused more on this kind of idea would sound like.
The instrumental segue track ‘Lisbon, OH’ perfectly sets big 80’s-keyboard number ‘Best/Rest’. Most of the lyrics are lost on me (even after looking up a transcription) except for the line, “I ainʼt living in the dark no more / It’s not a promise, Iʼm just gonna call it.” I made that one out, and even though I still don’t really know what it means, the delivery is so tortured and emphatic that it really resonated with me nonetheless. It’s a really great finishing track, slowly fading to an oscillating halt.
Bon Iver has a great deal more texture to it than For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s predecessor, whose now famous circumstances of production lent it a straightforward, bare-bones authenticity is a different animal entirely. With access to an arsenal of instrumentation and a slew of artists to collaborate with, Vernon has produced a work with this self-titled effort that’s full of little nooks and almost secret sounds that demand multiple listens for the full experience.
Even now, starting the album again as I finish writing this, listening to the punchy snares on ‘Perth’, I am sure I’ll find something new.