Buzz about Bon Iver’s self-released 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago had already grown fairly loud before it was finally picked up and given a wide release by Jagjaguwar in February of 2008. I remember reading about it on some forum in late 2007 and desperately seeking it out. I was, like many others, taken with the story of the artist who spent a long winter alone in a Wisconsin cabin composing, to borrow from the title of a Dave Eggers memoir, “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.” But good backstory aside, the music on the album both lived up to and surpassed my expectations, becoming one of my favorite releases of the last decade. However, the story has been repeated so often that it threatens to marginalize the artist and the music itself. Add to that the fact that the music on this record was light years away from anything that Justin Vernon had ever produced before with his previous band DeYarmond Edison, and the question on many people’s lips has been: Can Justin Vernon overcome the sad-boy-in-the-woods mythology of his first release and once again capture lightning in a bottle?
To answer this question, Vernon has provided us with the Blood Bank EP, a short collection of four songs that should lay to rest any fears that For Emma was some kind of fluke. The first two songs on the record, “Blood Bank” and “Beach Baby,” mirror the familiar acoustic ruminations of For Emma, but they have a more polished and fleshed out sound, with Vernon now accompanied by two steady bandmates. “Blood Bank” opens with the great line “I met you at the blood bank/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/matched any of the names we knew on the tags.” The song begins the slow shift in tone as the icy winter and heartbreak of For Emma begin to melt away. Vernon describes a new love that warms him with kisses, candy bars, and the rubbing of hands. “Beach Baby” is a brief backslide into grief with its weeping steel guitar and brief description of a lover leaving, but it too recalls a memory of warmer times with its description of an intimate oceanside encounter: “Once a time put a tongue in your ear on the beach.” To complete the tone shift, “Babys” is a departure from the familiar acoustic strumming that we have grown accustomed to, with its stabbing keyboard and the repetitive call to arms “Summer comes, to multiply!” The song could be the soundtrack to a spring thaw, when beasts from the animal kingdom awaken from their winter slumber with thoughts of little more than procreation on their minds. This caps off the subtle three song shift in which, through careful selection of track order, Bon Iver prepares us for his most ambitious departure yet.
The most captivating of the four songs is the final track, in which Vernon eschews all instrumentation for just his voice and a vocoder. “Woods,” reminiscent of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” begins slowly with a single voice, but on each successive verse, a new layer of encoded harmony is added to the mix, until a full on digital chorus explodes after the fourth pass. It’s a gorgeous experiment that pays off in full, goosebump-inducing rewards, as Vernon announces that he’s no longer just that sad guy in the cabin. Instead, he is an artist with the confidence, talent, and smarts to ease his fanbase into new territories while retaining the qualities that made his debut record connect with so many people.
P.S. I have read a few reviews of this EP, and no one yet has mentioned Vernon’s very subtle and brief flirtation with a vocoder on For Emma track “The Wolves (Act I and II).” If you listen very closely, you can hear the vocoder in a background vocal on the third and fourth times Vernon repeats “What might have been lost.” Did anyone else notice that besides me?
Bon Iver – “Woods” (you’ll need to crank your volume a bit for some reason)