Grade: 95% (A)
Let's get all the cabin in the woods talk out of the way. Okay good, I said it.
Bon Iver's follow up to For Emma, Forever Ago starts with, "Perth." The song starts with a strong guitar riff alone into snare drum and background vocals. A break comes and the song washes over your entire body like you're 18 and drunk listening to the album in the darkness of a basement with your friends. The opening track is actually about Heath Ledger, surprisingly enough, and while Justin Vernon's (don't pretend like you didn't know that was his real name) voice does the song a lot of justice, it is the guitar riffs, drum patterns, and horn section that carry the song on the emotional level. With this first song, Vernon set the tone for the entire album: this wasn't drunken woods acoustic sessions, but it was still going to be spectacular.
While For Emma touched everyone on an emotional level, Bon Iver is set up for more interpretation. It is darker, with a higher tempo (the band tours with two drum sets) and louder. Vernon's voice this time is right in your face, not hidden behind the lo-fi and quiet nature of his debut. While For Emma made you say, "Holy shit. I might cry," Bon Iver makes you say, "Holy shit." The Holocene refers to the last 10,000 years since the final ice left marking the end of the Ice Age. The guitar work throughout the song feels like it could go on for just about that long and nobody would get sick of it and the music video appropriately fits that feeling just as well.
Most artists generate their first album from every major experience of their life up until that point. For Emma however, was instead written from a year of shit that Vernon had been going through. This set up a peculiar situation for his follow-up: Vernon was able to explore those things from his early life he had not yet written about. It seems this might explain why 70% of the songs are named after locations. Perhaps they refer to things that happened to him while he was there. "Towers," with it's jangle guitar strumming, refers to the place where Vernon lost his virginity on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. "Perth," we know refers to the place where Heath Ledger was born.
It is clear that this wasn't made without the emotion of For Emma. This record was still made with a great amount of hurt and sentiment. Though it is heavier than For Emma, Bon Iver still has the beautiful moments that the debut did. You still can't understand more than half the things Justin is singing the entire time. Vernon leads "Michicant" with his voice and the building "Calgary" never seems to break or drop. The much debated closer, "Beth/Rest," sounds like a ballad right out of the eighties. But there is an engaging nature to it as well. If you aren't a fan of the song, you will be once you hear the way Vernon performed it with only a piano for NPR earlier this year. The song ushers in not only the ending of the record, but also a period of rest after the first nine songs attack your ears and soul. With "Beth/Rest" you can sit back and reflect upon the previous tracks and while the complexion of the song circles around you in every which way.
Bon Iver signals that Justin Vernon not only doesn't care about the back story of his debut anymore, but he is also not going to take advantage of it. While he could have come out with another lo-fi, acoustic, bedroom album and people would have given it good reviews just because, he instead explored his musical ideas and went in another direction, and earned good reviews with an excellent record.