Imagine yourself in the middle of the woods with nothing but a guitar. Now imagine yourself inside of a recording studio, with every sound-creating and altering tool there at your dispense. Whatever you create in either situation will come out quite differently. There is quite a contrast between Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, with its nine soft yet raw folk songs full of angelic harmonies and delicate guitar strums, and Bon Iver’s newest album, Bon Iver.
Founder and lead singer/song writer, Justin Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago, while isolating himself in the woods of Wisconsin, living off the land. This had a drastic effect on the album itself, drastic enough that the unique, calculated sound is simply not replicable. The folk aspect in For Emma, Forever Ago is so strong, as each and every song in the album emphasizes harmonic voices that execute metaphoric lyrics epitomizing the folk genre. Every pause, every word down to the last syllable is so tactfully put, I find it hard not to believe Vernon’s creative process carries along the lines of Thoreau’s footsteps, as nature is so prevalent throughout the entire album.
However, Bon Iver’s strong and unified folk sound is altered by circumstance. The group consisting of Vernon, Michael Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan, introduced a new tone in their EP album, Blood Bank, released in 2009. Blood Bank is just the beginning of this new sound captured in their 2011 release album Bon Iver. The simple, natural mood of For Emma, Forever Ago is but an undertone of Bon Iver’s newest album, Bon Iver. With Bon Iver come ten new songs, which cannot right off the bat be categorized as folk. To me, it’s as if Vernon and Bon Iver have combined rock, jazz, electronic, and even some country. It is such a contrast to their debut album, as Bon Iver seems to continue on their journey from the natural extremity to a more synthetic sound.
Listening to Bon Iver is like taking a surreal journey around America, as the titles of some of the songs in the album are named after unreal places, like, “Minnesota, WI” and “Michicant”. Each song in this album has a very different atmosphere, unlike that of For Emma, Forever Ago. Stacked on top of their rustic folk manner, is some reggae, jazz, country, rock, electronic, and orchestra. It’s like a melting pot of sound, as every song is different. For example, “Minnesota, WI” begins with a jazzy, reggae tone, but ends with a folk tone similar to that of Mumford & Sons. Tone alterations like these occur throughout the entire album. This surreal journey around America ends with “Beth/Rest”, in which the auto tune, jazzy electric guitar, and airy beat of the drum come straight from the 80’s. It makes me want to grab my leg warmers and neon jazzercise outfit. Why end this journey in the 80’s? I don’t know. But that’s where the album is put to rest.
Each song of the album is so intricately layered with many different instruments along with concordant voices singing their telling lyrics. These layers allow spacious sounds, as they create space in my mind as I listen to them over and over again. Each song leads elegantly into the next, taking the listener through the ups and downs of this trip around America from start to finish. This is completely opposite from For Emma, Forever Ago, in which there is a more stationary and reflective flavor, no journeys for the listener. Bon Iver’s evolution is prevalent, in terms of sound, and subject matter of lyrics. This is apparent in Bon Iver, as each song has its unique essence, as if they are experimenting with new tones to try and find the right one. With Bon Iver, the raw, naturalistic style that defines the sound of For Emma, Forever Ago, is lost, and replaced with a slick, more refined nature. It was surprising to me at least, that Bon Iver created this album. Nevertheless, it is a successful album, as it takes the listener on an emotional adventure from mental point A to mental point B.