Bon Iver seem to be a bit confused. Stepping out of the wintry woods and into the hot spotlight can have that effect.
Following what has become the most infamous period of isolation since Thoreau and his picturesque pond, neo-soul man Justin Vernon has seen his debut full-length, For Emma, Forever Ago, transition from word-of-mouth exchange in 2007 to official label release on Jagjaguwar Records in 2008. The album’s brilliantly simple honesty and chilling atmospheres have captured the hearts and ears of listeners across the country, both fans and critics alike. To call For Emma, Forever Ago a success would severely understate its impact. Bon Iver have been swept up in a maelstrom of radio interviews, in-studio recordings (including Daytrotter and Myspace Transmission sessions), and tour dates with Swedish acoustic artist The Tallest Man on Earth. If AP.net fervor is your measure of achievement, then it’s also important to note that Bon Iver’s gem finished at number seven on the staff’s compiled list of The Best of 2008 and featured prominently in many staff members’ and users’ lists as well. Suffice it to say, 2008 was a pretty bang-up year for Bon Iver.
Having taken refuge in the snowy tundra of Wisconsin with a broken band and a broken heart, only to emerge with a scoured soul and ten exquisite tracks, the obvious question quickly became where would Vernon go from there? While some of us would have been thrilled to hold our breath until the band, now completed by Sean Carey (percussion/keys/vocals) and Mike Noyce (guitar/vocals), churned out For Emma, Forever Ago 2: Electric Boogaloo, it seemed doubtful that Bon Iver’s collective integrity would allow for such an easy, and hollow, sophomore release. After all, Vernon can’t exactly run back into the woods at this point. So what next?
Fans certainly haven’t had to wait for long. A mere eleven months after the release of For Emma, Forever Ago (even less time if you managed to grab a vinyl copy at any of the band’s fall dates), Bon Iver have revealed the Blood Bank EP, a grab-bag collection of tunes that epitomizes the multi-pronged fork in the band’s musical road. Though it’s only four tracks long, each song seems poised at the brink, looking over its shoulder to say, “Maybe this is the way,” before jumping headlong into the future. Each one is produced with sparse perfection and ragged edges, like pages ripped out of your favorite novel. It’s comfortably familiar and yet infinitely interesting.
The EP opens with “Blood Bank,” full of delicate, everyday love wrapped up in the band’s signature tender harmonies and driven by grumbling chords. The track is decorated with the tiny, sparkling moments experienced in between breaths by those deeply in love, and even though Vernon claims he can’t describe them (“It’s that secret that we know/ That we don’t know how to tell”), he does so in perfect detail: “I’m in love with your honor/ I’m in love with your cheeks/ What’s that noise up the stairs, babe?/ Is that Christmas morning creaks?” “Beach Baby” follows with what comes closest to the For Emma vibe, though it’s been displaced from the forest to a sunny beach. Less than two minutes of whispered falsetto passes lightly on the wind and is replaced by a lazy line of drifting slide guitar, which itself is pulled away by a current as the sand-worn softness of the song dissolves after a mere two and a half minutes.
The last two tracks, “Babys” and “Woods,” are both based on similar principals of construction. “Babys” begins cautiously with a repeated piano chord. Soon it’s joined by a second chord and then another and another. The chords blend, winding around each other to form a persistent pulse on which Vernon launches his melody. As he sings “Summer comes/ To multiply/ To multiply,” both the instrumentation and vocal harmonies echo these words, building and swelling into one great, sonorous rhythm. When the chords break down, stumbling into each other before coming to a halt, Vernon’s chorus takes over, in which he professes, “I am the Carnival of Peace/ I’ll probably start a fleet/ With no apologies.” With a similar build and even less lyrics, “Woods” introduces an element that will likely shock most avid Bon Iver followers: auto-tune. The track combines the a capella electronic vibe of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” with the Bon Iver’s structured harmonies and Vernon’s vocal artistry. As more and more voices are added into the stream, singing the tune’s only four lyrics “I’m up in the woods/ I’m down on my mind/ I’m building a still/ To slow down the time,” the song takes on a meditative, almost ritualistic quality. It’s a haunting, yet surprising, conclusion to the Blood Bank EP’s brief journey.
Having watched Vernon trudge through ice and loneliness into the warmth and comfort of successful, genuine artistic expression, we’re left to wonder which of the Blood Bank EP’s tracks represents the next path Bon Iver will take. The indie guitars and compassion of “Blood Bank”? The quieter relaxation of “Beach Baby”? Or maybe the crystalline growth of “Babys” or the electronic harmonies of “Woods”? Whichever direction Vernon chooses, he’s shown that he’s not shackled to his solitude. The future is bright, and decidedly warmer, for Bon Iver.