The second album from Wisconsinite folk singer Justin Vernon is a curious departure from his beloved debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Much of that album's appeal lied in its simplicity, which underscored Vernon's tender falsetto. His voice may sound the same on Bon Iver, but the production is dramatically different.
Those hoping for a second album of woodsy folk-rock will be disappointed by this album's bolder rock arrangements, particularly those at the end of the album that jump on the '80s revival bandwagon. "Beth/Rest," the album's divisive closer, is awash in synthesizers with bursts of electric guitar and saxophone--the sort of production that recalls late '80s Phil Collins, Don Henley or Bette Midler. Opinion seems to be divided whether this choice was bold and unexpected or brilliantly ill-advised (Given my current '80s focus, I happen to think it's fun). The album's single, "Calgary," is another indie rock trend rider.
The '80s focus constrasts sharply with much of the rest of the album, a work dominated by its emphasis on more and different sounds. "Perth" starts with gentle guitar--the album's closest moment to its predecessor--before stripping in some marching drums and rocking electric guitar. Blending an unusual mix of instruments is taken to an extreme on "Minnesota, WI," which tosses in some nice bass play, harp, layered saxophone, and banjo. "Towers" takes quite a few musical turns too, shifting from brooding rock to upbeat folk with a hint of country. "Wash." begins tenderly with piano, vocal and some far off strings, building later with deeper piano chords and strings.
Most of the songs are named for places, including some that don't actually exist ("Minnesota, WI"), as if the songs represent the unspooling of memories--not always accurate--from a recent tour. It's a journey that begins in Justin Vernon's backwoods cabin and ends, surprisingly perhaps disappointingly, in Bette Midler's recording studio, but takes some worthwhile turns along the way.
Best: Perth, Wash., Towers, Beth/Rest, Calgary