[caption id="attachment_4946" align="alignnone" width="630" caption="Justin Vernon in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, August 2010. Photo: D.L. Anderson"][/caption]
The most surprising song on Bon Iver’s new album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, is “Beth/Rest,” a five-minute soft-rock ballad textured with saxophones, Auto-Tuned vocals and pillowy-electric piano that climaxes with a guitar solo, which sounds lifted from a Lifetime movie or a commercial for a cruise liner -- lovers running along the beach in slow-motion, maybe, or fractured sunlight on the surface of the water.
In short, it’s seductively corny. And what's surprising is that it's coming from a musician — Justin Vernon — whose last album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, was a primal folk record made in a cabin in rural Wisconsin after a breakup. Part of what made For Emma appealing was its myth, which echoed 19th-century American tales about self-reliance, the restorative powers of nature and how monk-like introspection leads to the discovery of the true spirit; the promise that all we need in order to find our lost selves is patience and a cabin in the woods.
As appealing as the myth is, it isn’t all true: In a recent interview with the New York Times, Vernon said that during the time he was recording For Emma, he also did odd jobs for his father and watched a lot of DVDs. His admission doesn’t make me question his sincerity; this is a guy who, in 2009, performed with his former high school jazz band in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and more recently, rescheduled his European tour dates so they wouldn’t conflict with hunting season. But the idea that he was making this lonesome and soul-dredging music between updating his Netflix queue reinforces what makes “Beth/Rest” and the rest of Bon Iver, Bon Iver special: Vernon’s ability to make use of these shared myths and images at the same time that he’s taking them apart.
Compared to For Emma, the new album is luxurious and cloudy, filled with keyboard drones, slow-moving saxophones and whole weather systems of reverb and echo. Vernon seems set on not having his lyrics heard, let alone understood, and sings as though his mouth is filled with cotton balls. He is also the singer in a band now, not just a project unto himself. The myth of solitude no longer applies. That impulse of indie-Americana — to tell your tale as directly as possible — is put in the context of music that works through texture and abstraction. Vernon muddles a form that was made for clarity. The result is like a confession in a made-up language; it overflows with a feeling but sounds like nonsense.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver isn’t a cerebral album; it’s too beautiful to think. But unlike For Emma, its beauty has a weight to it, an argument. Vernon's indecipherability is one of the qualities that makes the album so special; despite the unflinching intimacy of it, I don’t feel like I know Vernon any better after listening to it. It’s a kind of paradox between intimacy and anonymity that Vernon seems to already understand about his own music, having called Bon Iver “a feeling” and the Emma of For Emma “a place.” It’s a dynamic that pop music and Lifetime movie makers have always understood, but that indie-folk, in its investment in the artist’s oh-so-singular experience, tends to forget: The less specific the picture becomes, the more relatable it tends to be.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver is out on June 21 on Jagjaguwar.