To many Bon Iver fans, Justin Vernon will always be the plaid-clad mountain-man sensitivo stranded in wintry isolation in the Wisconsin wilderness. But as Bon Iver shows, there’s a gap between the image created by For Emma, Forever Ago—and its oft-told cabin-bound creation story—and Vernon’s new music, and it’s wide enough to encompass a universe of warm sounds and billowy textures. Like many follow-ups to successful debuts, Bon Iver is bigger, a bit slicker, a little stranger, and a lot more indulgent, in a mostly positive, generous way. Even the most Emma-like tracks—the pretty “Holocene,” the even prettier piano ballad “Wash.”—have a grander, more layered sound that might put off those drawn in by the simplicity of Bon Iver’s first record.
Bon Iver often sounds more like the adventurous and irreverent side projects Vernon has busied himself with in recent years than like Emma or 2009’s complementary Blood Bank EP. The resplendent opener “Perth” resembles Vernon’s post-rock ensemble Volcano Choir (formed with fellow Wisconsin indie-rockers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees), boasting heavily strummed guitars and double kick-drum fills that out-muscle anything in Bon Iver’s back catalog. More troublingly, the lite-FM ballad “Beth/Rest” nods to the yacht-rock collective Gayngs, though the song’s mannered, irony-straddling cheesiness might finally mark the turning point away from indie’s ongoing fascination with the most sickeningly smooth sounds of the early ’80s.
What remains at the core of Vernon’s music is a preference for abstraction over directness. More than ever, Vernon favors creating sounds and moods over traditional songwriting. Mixing the vocals and expansive instrumentation into a chamber-folk phantasmagoria, Vernon seeks to re-create a sort of interior monologue, which is expressed through the sound of his voice (rather than words) and a pocket symphony of strings, steel guitars, skronky saxes, and spacey banjo licks. Looking for a literal “meaning” to songs like “Calgary” and “Hinnom, TX” is a dead end; like Emma, Bon Iver doesn’t deal in declarative statements, but in elusive, formless feeling. But for all its introspection, Bon Iver feels a lot more open than Vernon’s previous work, the sound of a lonely guy taking his first steps into a larger world.