YOU’VE HEARD that story about Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), right? The story about how, on the crushing flipside of a horrible breakup, he traveled to the Sahara Desert and lived with Bedouins for a year, braving the vicious heat by day and frigid cold by night to slave over and record his 2008 defining For Emma, Forever Ago—all between the folds of a camel skin?
It’s one of those stories you can’t forget, no matter how many times a slobbering interviewer or adjective-stringing hack writer has to reference it for the sake of the one person who might have thus far avoided hearing Vernon’s indietastic back story. The album was a perfectly identifiable history for any person trying to wrap their mind around love, heartbreak, and the unmistakable power of serious beard growth in overcoming those two problems.
And it was so tongue-in-cheek, so nauseatingly memorable.
But it’s more than just Vernon’s storytelling roots and lilting falsetto that has allowed the scraggly-voiced singer to rise to the forefront of that which is indie-folk-ballad-rock. Throw aside all cabin-contrived gimmicks surrounding the creation of Emma and the legend of Bon Iver, and there still remains a simple but profound style of storytelling that taps into a musical stream of consciousness deeper than the spring of the week. Few possess his ability to excavate the depths of our creature-fear, to blindside us and leave us wondering: “Who the hell was I?”
And then there’s this Blood Bank.
Find a band that manages to make something simple, something profound, something beautiful, and you won’t find satisfaction in nine short album tracks. You’ll need more. The problem is that while there’s a long list of first-kiss album loves, there are few deep musical romances. This Bon Iver release serves as a second date for his listeners, and its four short movements contain all the mixed emotions of a follow-up romantic encounter.
Just like any sweaty-palmed second night, the first few moments are filled with a quiet reverence that borders on transcendence. “Blood Bank” evolved from an angrier live version to a soft, slow-strummed melody, allowing Vernon’s comfort-food vocals to gently drape itself across the song. It’s is as good as anything he’s ever crafted, and when he asks, “What’s that noise on the stairs babe?/is that Christmas morning creaks?” you have to believe that these blood-sharing lovers will overcome whatever problem that they might encounter.
The song embodies the very essence of what has taken Vernon from a cabin in Wisconsin to the stages of Europe and the top of the year-in-review tabulations. It’s simple, clear, and possesses a rare ability to paint vivid musical scenes that are neither stock nor contrived. But it’s the climactic moment of the night, and the rest of the album can’t maintain the intensity.
“Beach Baby” feels like a forgotten B-side or interlude from Emma, with the slide guitar and soft strumming underneath Vernon’s instruction to “tell your lucky one to know that you’ll leave.” That might be a start, but it’s hardly the end, and the track comes off sounding more like a throwaway musical sketch than a work of art.
This proclivity towards unfinished construction plagues the rest of the EP. Despite my unrelenting weakness for piano-based ballads, “Babys” just left me praying that Vernon would stop multiplying the unrelenting stream of three repeated notes and move on to something less reproductive. There’s a few nice harmonies hidden in the mix but, without any lyrical and musical progression, the track falters.
The second evening out with Bon Iver closes with a small walk into “The Woods” that attains the unique distinction of being the least mocked use of auto-tune in recent memory. There’s a haunting texture to the composition that fits Vernon’s howling falsetto excellently. Unfortunately, despite the little scarf wearers swooning over his bold experiment, the song comes off as a work in progress rather than any new level of musicianship.
Second dates don’t always create or destroy the embryo of a budding romance, and while this outing may not make any new converts to story time with Bon Iver, it won’t turn anyone away. Vernon seems to posses a deep talent rising in the song “Blood Bank” and his upcoming work on Dark Was the Night that can’t be constrained or cheapened by any of his musical castoffs. But even bearded sensations can’t be golden all the time.
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