In the age of irony and detached hipster cool, Justin Vernon has somehow managed to reach near-deity status with little more than a handful of sincere folk tunes and a poignant, earthy falsetto. Now, having indulged in a number of side projects and collaborations ever since stoking the adoration of both hipsters and hip-hop superstars with his 2007 debut, Vernon turns his attention back to Bon Iver for the group’s second, eponymous LP.
Given the kind of stuff that Vernon’s been up to for the past few years, no one was really expecting this album to be a rehashing of things past, and Bon Iver confirms that expectation in full. Where For Emma, Forever Ago thrived on its sparseness, the new record’s sound is richly and carefully layered. Just listen to “Minnesota, WI,” which incorporates Vernon’s voice, flutes, pedal-steel, saxophone, banjos, nylon guitar and shimmery Korg M1 stabs—and actually pulls it off. Most of the record’s tracks approach a similar level of complexity, but at the same time, Vernon and co. always manage to keep things digestible (a balance that Radiohead epitomized on OK Computer). This is a record that music nerds can dissect ad nauseum while their friends kick back on the other end of the couch and just enjoy the tunes.
In addition to his usual Bon Iver collaborators, Vernon has invited a cast of established contributors along for the ride this time: saxophonist Colin Stetson (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire), Greg Leisz on pedal-steel (Robert Plant, Wilco) and C.J. Camerieri (Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright) on horns, to name a few. These guys aren’t just sidemen to Vernon; they are collaborators, and it’s no mistake that in the liner notes, Vernon’s name appears halfway down the personnel list. Vernon has said that everyone who played on the album had a part in the songwriting process, and you can definitely pick out those individual voices on the finished product (hear Camerieri’s horns washing over “Perth” like a cut straight from Sufjan’s Christmas EPs, or Stetson’s sputtering alto sax on the breathtaking climax of “Holocene”).
And so, while For Emma dripped with the alienation and inward focus embodied by its now mythologized cabin-lore origins, the communal effort that spawned Bon Iver gives the record an almost universal import. This is the sound of a man awake in the world and reaching outward, and it’ll make you want to wrap your arms around the entire human race. Vernon’s lyrics are oblique as always, casting impressionistic moods while always keeping the precise meaning just beyond reach—but by doing this, he leaves room for you to enter the songs for yourself and attach to them your own feelings and associations. Deliberate or not, it works beautifully.
Much has been made of Bon Iver‘s divisive closer, “Beth/Rest,” which has drawn jeers and Bruce Hornsby comparisons for its straight-from-the-’80s keyboard pads and wanky saxophone flourishes. In a music culture that revels in throwback kitsch and too-cool-for-school attitudes, it’s our instinct to respond with suspicion, thinking the song must have been recorded for the sake of irony or as some sort of statement. But Vernon swears it was in earnest. “I don’t feel defensive about it,” he told NPR. “When I made it, I was like, ‘I love this song. I really need to write this song. And I need it to be last on this record.’”
Sometimes, a song is just a song and an album is just the work of a bunch of guys coming together to make some damn good music. This is one of those times. So put aside your sense of irony for 40 minutes and listen to what, so far, is 2011′s best record.