Every band has a story, but in the case of Bon Iver, it's all but impossible to distinguish the notes from the narrative. Back in October 2007, the same month that Radiohead sent out its pay-whatever-you-please release In Rainbows, a shaggy-haired Midwesterner by the name of Justin Vernon was quietly self-releasing the moody, meditative record For Emma, Forever Ago. The album was recorded chiefly over a single lonely winter in a snowbound cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, and fans of those early self-leaked tracks were wooed by Emma's expansive, ethereal atmosphere. Playing with ambiguous (some might say unintelligible) lyrics and manipulating Auto-Tune to distort and reinvent the conventional singer-songwriter textures, Vernon produced a haunting Rorschach test of an album, a tribute to the fragile, fractured despair of the deepest heartache. Vernon's voice, a creamy falsetto, was the record's most distinctive element, but the closer one listened to the tracks, the more the meticulous, daring production design came into focus. For Emma earned a rave Pitchfork review and then sent print critics swooning; not long after, indie label Jagjaguwar picked up the record for a proper release.
Fans have been waiting for a second album ever since. Between 2008 and 2011, Vernon went from hermit to headliner, signing up for an array of collaborations (Volcano Choir, Gayngs) before hopping into a recording booth with Kanye West. As Vernon has skewed more mainstream, many early Bon Iver fans began to wonder, Was For Emma a momentary aberration? The answer comes in the form of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the band's impressive new effort, which is already widely available for Web streaming (it officially goes on sale Tuesday, June 21).
Most startling about the new tracks is the band's refined ensemble sound. Ditching the acoustic solitude, Vernon has marshaled a considerable company of musicians (his summer tour is featuring an eight-piece band) to add texture to his familiar sounds of isolation, accenting his contemplation with an array of horns, strings, organs and soaring electric guitars. A first spin through the songs, carefully curated to create an emotional progression, reveals the poignant peaks and troughs the bombastic horns of "Perth," the delicate howls of "Holocene," the electronic pulses of "Hinnom, TX" and the delicate piano-and-strings requiem of "Wash."
But much like For Emma, the more you listen, the deeper and broader the songs become. (I've hit repeat about 20 times now and continue to discover new details buried in the compositions.) "Perth," the record's opening track each song bears a geographic label swiftly bridges the ethereal For Emma and the more earthbound Bon Iver. A gust of wind, a flurry of clanging (are those wind chimes?) and a faded, echoed chorus of voices are abruptly joined by snare drums moving at a swift march. The pace quickens, the voices come to the foreground, the horns chime in, and "Perth" builds into a triumphant, celebratory crescendo. If the earlier Bon Iver record looked inward, inviting listeners to journey inside a wounded heart, "Perth" makes it clear: this is an album that aims to shout from the rooftops. The snow has thawed.
The risk that accompanies this amplified approach is that this new, plugged-in sound will strip the band of its evocative ambiance. What was most distinctive, and enjoyable, about Bon Iver's free-floating debut was the stark lack of elements at play, the open space that accented all that heartache. Indeed, there is one track on Bon Iver in which one can feel the pitfalls of all this new pep as the walls close in. It's a bouncy, three-minute track dubbed "Towers," so breezy with twangy electric guitar, popping horns and bubble-gum choruses ("Whoa whoa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oa") that it all but flies in one ear and out the other. Of all the Bon Iver tracks yet created, this is the most sparkling, syncopated and thoroughly forgettable.
But the "Towers" misstep is a revealing outlier, underscoring just how effectively Bon Iver have made use of these new musical tools on the other tracks, molding songs of greater intricacy and complexity. The euphoric "Perth" segues seamlessly into the sprawling, seductive "Minnesota, WI," on which Vernon alternates between a flowing baritone and a more staccato falsetto ("Never gonna break, never gonna break"), just as the music veers from a bouncy electronic march to a static organ to an urgent duet between a plucky acoustic guitar and two swinging saxophones. Fans will fall in love immediately with "Holocene," a faint, solo guitar melody that would have fit perfectly on For Emma, building to a chorus that is at once reflective and mournful: "And at once I knew I was not magnificent/ High above the jagged aisle/ Jagged vacance, thick with ice/ I could see for miles, miles, miles." The heartstrings pull tightest on "Wash.," whose cascade of male harmonies floats somewhere between the warmth of the violins and the chilly syncopation of the piano.
It's near the end of the record that one feels Vernon eagerly pushing the envelope. The hypnotic "Hinnom, TX" features so much electronic manipulation in its pulsating guitars (and multilayered voices) that it could easily be mistaken for a TV on the Radio soundscape; "Calgary" has already earned comparisons to Coldplay with its soft-rock hum. Critics and fans alike, however, have gasped at the finale: the Bruce Hornsby love letter "Beth/Rest," easily the most polarizing Bon Iver, Bon Iver track. Swelling organs slide abruptly into electric guitar and screeching sax, evoking an anthem right out of the '80s. It's more than just playfully retro; this is Vernon's unabashed love letter to his musical comfort food.
For some, "Beth/Rest" will be too much: too earnest, too sappy. But it's really no more audacious in concept than "Perth" or "Holocene." All richly layered tapestries anchored by lush vocals, inviting and mysterious lyrics, expert production and an overwhelming sense of longing, the songs of Bon Iver, Bon Iver exceed those of For Emma in nearly every capacity. Yes, those initial cabin melodies had the benefit of novelty and distinctiveness, but these new creations look further and plunge deeper, exploring a much more diverse emotional terrain. And structural analysis aside, one shouldn't waste time scrutinizing the obvious that cuts like "Beth/Rest," "Wash.," "Holocene" and "Perth" rise atop heartfelt and elegant melodies, arriving at achingly beautiful pinnacles. Even with all the new tools on display, there's still the magic of twilight emanating from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The difference is that now it feels more like sunrise than sunset, as if we're connecting with a musician no longer haunted by what he lost but instead tantalized by what comes next.