Justin Vernon, a folk songwriter from Wisconsin, exploded into the indie music world with a self-produced album titled For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007. His music stood out for its stark, lonely atmosphere, stacking multiple tracks of acoustic guitar and soulful, falsetto vocals which Vernon would sometimes heavily auto-tune– overcoming the stereotypes of the digital tool by using it as an artistic statement rather than a crutch for lazy singing.
In 2008, he released an EP, Blood Bank, which caught the attention of pop superstar Kanye West, who collaborated with Vernon on his bestseller My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, pulling the singer-songwriter further into the national spotlight and increasing speculation about what direction his sophomore LP might take. Well, here it is: Bon Iver’s self-title new album, due out June 21st, is streaming online in its entirety thanks to NPR and the New York Times.
The highest compliment I can think of is that Bon Iver sounds like Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz semi-unplugged. That magnificent record (the best of 2010, if I may say so) fully blended aggressive synthesizers, rock instrumentation, and a full orchestra. On the much more muted Bon Iver, we hear more acoustic instruments ringing over a far emptier space. There’s a thread of hushed synth saws weaving in and out of the songs, electric guitars swooping from lonely, single-note noodling to even sadder, full-chord strumming, and a revolving cast of characters including low-register woodwinds, pianos, banjos, string quartets, and the most magnificent use of electric piano ever. Ever. Equipped with better recording equipment, we don’t hear his signature auto-tune as often; Vernon sings louder, more confidently, even dipping into his lower register a few times.
All these elements are arranged and recorded perfectly; whereas Age of Adz pulls its listener into an intimate, emotionally wrenching personal drama, Bon Iver sweeps one away to a waking dream, surveying the beauty of the world through wide-scoped views of its landscapes (all the song titles are or are related to the names of various North American towns). Of course, these are all just first impressions right now, but upon first (er, at least sixth at this point) listen, Bon Iver is the album to beat this year. I’ll keep you posted as the months go by, but in the meantime, take a listen for yourself through the streaming player below.