The lyric sheet of the new Bon Iver album contains a cryptic series of geographic odes with allusions to love and loss, nature and drugs, and obscure biblical, nautical, geological, and architectural vocabulary. Noachide? Hawser? Holocene? Soffit? When did Justin Vernon get an MFA in poetry?
But maybe the words are beside the point. To borrow some vocabulary from the album, pop lyrics are melic, or meant to be sung. And if anyone can sing, it’s Vernon, the voice of Bon Iver, whose Midwestern melancholy and angelic falsetto has propelled him from indie favorite to Kanye West collaborator to New York Times Magazine cover boy. On the eponymous Bon Iver album, streaming on NPR until its official June 21 release, Vernon sounds like a gloomy and sensitive choirboy with the soul of Curtis Mayfield, the swank of The Bee Gees, and the poppy polish of Fine Young Cannibals.
Bon Iver is an ambitious musical departure from For Emma, Forever Ago, the achy, acoustic debut Vernon recorded in the Wisconsin woods in 2007 after he broke up with his band and his girlfriend. If Emma was essentially a lo-fi solo album, the new record is a collaborative effort burnished in the studio, with layers of synthesizers, electric and pedal steel guitars, banjos, horns, and strings. In his move from troubadour to bandleader, Vernon jettisons strummy heartbreakers like “Skinny Love” and “For Emma Forever Ago” in favor of lush, dreamy soundscapes filled with lengthy instrumental interludes.
Bon Iver, Perth
While the sonic shift sometimes buries the already obtuse lyrics and sacrifices the intimacy of Emma, it also allows a broader range of moods and genres: from military march (“Perth”) to lullaby waltz (“Michicant”) to country pop (“Towers”) to churchy ballad (“Calgary”). In the album’s riskiest move, the final track (“Beth/Rest”) flaunts the soft rock schmaltz that Vernon embraced last year with side project GAYNGS. Prom Queens of the ‘80s, this one’s for you.
Bon Iver, Holocene
Bon Iver, Minnesota, WI
In the refrain of “Holocene,” Vernon sings: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The song suggests man’s insignificance in the grand scheme of nature. Still, every time Vernon opens his mouth to sing, the effect is nothing short of magnificent. Given the caliber of his voice, Vernon took a risk to share lead vocal duties with his band mates. But the risk pays off. On “Minnesota, WI” and “Hinnom, TX” their low register vocals channel the spirit of the late Nate Dogg and make it all the more sweet when Vernon enters to hit the high notes.