Justin Vernon has found something in the sound of closely mic’d fret buzzing and the Wisconsin woods. Formerly of DeYarmond Edison out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Vernon has taken his time to craft a folk record with an unusual (and consistently intriguing) ambience that elevates it to something entirely different. Neo-Soul? A little bit. Noise Folk? It has that aura. Original? Without a doubt. Bon Iver (from the French for “good winter”) is the love-child of all these elements, and Vernon is working within a whole new framework – redefining folk while embracing it.
This new project is an exercise in influence definition. Embracing the Nashville-crooner era Dylan, Bon Iver opens the record with the transcendent “Flume” – his voice hovering above the soft acoustic guitar and a feedback screeching guitar. The songs construction seems straightfoward until the bridge, which enters a lovely feedback/harmonics exchange, only to jump back into the driving chorus. We’re left, I think, with a strong sense of what makes Vernon different from all the other “Singer-Songwriters” who have been embraced by the independent scene. He’s taken the weird folk that bands like O’Death and Vetiver have been playing with for years and he’s given it honest-to-god sentiment.
The album unfortunately lags with “Lump Sum”, a song that emphasizes his vocal range at the expense of simple arrangement and effect. Expectations, however, are quickly more than exceeded by the following song. There is no way I can present this in a simpler manner for you, so here it is: “Skinny Love” is pretty much the best track I’ve heard all year. It’s the kind of tune that haunts you, takes you to bed at night – a tune to take with a sleeping pill and shot of whiskey before a hard sleep. Somewhere between his open tuning, slightly wavering rythym, and transcendent voice, he pins down his sound so well, you’ll figure that Vernon has been enjoying some old soul music along with his 70s Tom Rush records and 90’s Elliott Smith. And when the bridge rolls around, and he’s hollering “Who will love you?”, it comes with the same dissapointed aggravation that colors the entire record, and it becomes the centerpiece for the album. Lyrically, It doesn’t seem particularly impressive until you realize that he can introduce that sentiment just as easily in his softer lines (“come on, skinny love, what happened here?”) and continues to do so for the next six songs or so.
A word on the lyrics in general: Vernon plays with surrealism. The Thoreau-esque lyrics of “The Wolves” and “Flume” play along nicely with the more harmonious Dylan impression of “re: stacks” and “For Emma”. Do we then have a falsetto that gives Cee-Lo a run for his money and lyrics that make other sad-sappy songwriters seem weak by comparison? Yes. Buy this record without hesitation.
Words and Subliminal Messages by Miles King
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