Friday, 17 June 2011

Album review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver (4AD)

There are many artists who have recieved a late career boost from a younger act citing their legacy. Issac Hayes probably got a good boost from Massive Attack's Blue Lines while Peter Gabriel undoubtedly restored some street cred when he was name checked on Vampire Weekend's debut. Few though would have anticipated the ressurection of Bruce Hornsby and the Range.

Much has been made of Beth/Rest the final track on Bon Iver's second album. Its unadshamedly 80's with drum machines, squealing guitar solos and acres of synths. Justin Vernon (for he is Bon Iver) happily accepts the debt he owes to Bruce and this is certainly one of the most unexpected new directions for an artist to take this year. The AOR influence on artists you might term 'alt-country' has undoubtedly been growing in the last couple of years. One of the stand out albums of last year, John Grant's Queen of Denmark also eagerly embraced the 1980's sound despite having Midlake as it's house band but Beth/Rest goes beyond an 80's 'feel' to a full embrace of 80's technology and approach. Its likely to alienate at least some fans who were charmed by his previous work.

Its the culmination of a fascinating journey undertaken by Vernon since his debut For Emma Forever Ago made considerable waves on its release in 2008. Let us not forget that this was a record made in a log cabin off the back of a painful break up. Unlike many of my peers, this album never really grabbed me, I found it rather one dimensional. It was only when I caught Bon Iver live (at the Green Man festival in 2009) that I 'got' it. The sound was much more expansive than on record, reminding me of Pink Floyd which is no bad thing at a festival. Since then Vernon has recorded with artists as diverse as Har Mar Superstar and Kanye West so to expect straight ahead Americana was probably pushing it this time round.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer variety of instrumentation. As well as guitar we get analogue synths, violins, piano, saxaphone and what sounds like a marching drum. This is certainly not a man resting on his laurels. His musical capability is certainly greater than it was just two years ago and the sound as a whole is much richer. This is oddly a record that could only have been made at this point in time - despite the debt it owes to the likes of the Band and Simon and Garfunkul there are clear hints of electronica and Sufjan Stevens as well as the aforementioned decade that taste forgot.

Opening track Perth is a baffling statement of intent. It's gentle guitar soon gives way to military drumming which is in turn replaced with what can only be described as rock power riffs and trumpets. Its as odd as it sounds and immediately clear that what we are dealing with here is far more complex than a solo accoustic record. Minnesota, WI maintains this momentum bringing a saxaphone into play over beautifully plucked guitar. Things slow down for Holocene which is more akin to the For Emma era material. 'I can see for miles and miles and miles' Vernon wails over a floyd-esque backing track. It's quite possibly the loveliest thing he's yet recorded. Towers is more of an ensemble piece and is deeply rooted in the Americana tradition of the Band and more recently the likes of Vetiver. A number of the tracks from hereon in start as conventional songs but them disintegrate to enable different instruments and sounds to glide in and out of the mix. The alt-country tag is still relevant but there are also hints of 80's balladry and even free jazz. The 80's sound first emerges on the heavily stylised vocals of Hinnome, TX but really comes to the fore on Calgary which somehow made me think of Simple Mind's Belfast Child being relocated to the forests of Canada.

Lyrics as a whole are fairly difficult to define. Justin's falsetto vocal makes individual words hard to pick out and even when you can make out the words, the themes they convey seem fairly opaque. However, this is more an album of mood than specific tales and is a major step forward in ambition and sound from his previous long player. Overall a record that is nicely balanced - both traditional and contemporary, accoustic and electronic, emotional but effective. We might just see a surge in Bruce Hornsby sales yet...

No comments:

Post a Comment