Own act hard to follow
WHEN your debut is heralded as the best thing since sliced bread, where to next?
For the man behind Bon Iver, Justin Vernon, the only option was jumping ship – he avoided making this album for a long while.
He collaborated with other musicians, experimenting with sounds that were way outside his normal indiefolk scene. He even wrote a bunch of music with rap music’s biggest star Kanye West.
But now it’s time to get down to business, his sophomore, self-titled album.
Where his acclaimed debut For Emma, Forever Ago was a deeply personal tale of heartbreak and isolation, this one is more ambiguous. The style is still intimate but his new lyrics aren’t cut so deeply from his own flesh.
Musically things are different and the same. There are plenty of guitar-driven laments but Vernon has also extended the act’s reach with a more cinematic, elaborate, live-band sound.
Perth opens proceedings with softly strummed melodies before exploding in the back end with a monumental, psychedelic climax. The minimal, sublime, whispering Hinnom, TX just shimmers and cascades for nearly three minutes.
Piano-led Wash treads a similar path and is a prime example of no-frills, beautiful songwriting that packs an emotional punch.
Minnesota, WI has a different sort of surprise up its sleeve. The light R& B horns are cool but it’s the hefty bass that appears mid-song that hit me for six. Maybe there is some slight Kanye influence here – folk music we can dance to perhaps?
Most impressive is Vernon’s varied vocal palette. He can do a convincing low-slung grumble but more often sings in a high register with a delicate falsetto.
He’s also got some studio tricks in his arsenal, such as using Auto Tune to add a rich texture. This could be the best advocate of a technology that is more often than not abused by singers who aren’t that great at singing.
Towns is up there with the album’s best material. Warm and lush with layered vocals, it has got a dash of alt-country in its DNA with impressive electric guitars instead of Vernon’s old- favourite acoustics. On the cheekily titled Michicant, Vernon sounds soulful in self-reflection. The song veers into haunting territory; it’s impressive stuff.
The only song that fails to resonate is the criminally uncool closing number Beth/ Rest.
What on earth is going on here? Did Phil Collins sneak into the studio?
And why are these songs named after remote towns?