Opening with a gentle and sparse guitar melody flowing into a militaristic beat, “Perth” sets the tone for what will follow on the nine-song album. It’s a complex and fascinating four minutes of music that builds up and up to get louder in a hail of kick drum, before merging seamlessly into the next song “Minnesota”. Justin Vernon’s vocal register goes from a Bee Gees-esque falsetto to something resembling the low tones of a moody soul singer. The dynamic journey takes him back up before “Minnesota” comes to an almost abrupt end.
Next up is “Holocene”. This is arguably the key song on the album, both musically and lyrically. Vernon sings a tale of loss and the realization, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent,” is a recurring refrain in the song. Vibraphone notes linger, while tenor saxophones subtly phase in and out of each speaker and clarinets chirp in a mood largely reminiscent of later Talk Talk albums. Knowing that Bon Iver has very successfully covered Talk Talk’s “I Believe In You” in concert gives some credence to the theory that the parallels are not accidental. This is not to say that they are copying anyone, but clearly inspired by the hallowed sounds of Talk Talk’s “Spirit of Eden” and “Laughing Stock” – which can only be a good thing.
Up next, “Towers” has a more up tempo, yet still mellow feel with a slight country twang evidenced by the presence of some steel guitar. The more you get into this album, the more seamlessly the songs seem to flow into each other. This really is a cohesive body of work and few albums achieve that sense of togetherness so seemingly effortlessly. Although the overall feel is still very down tempo, Bon Iver is definitely a much less downbeat affair than their previous offerings.
The sense of remoteness that was captured on the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago (QRO review) is still present, but there is a fuller and more sophisticated musical palate on offer. We even get a Fripp & Eno like instrumental vignette in “Lisbon, Oh” after Vernon’s softly delivered proclamation at the end of the song “Calgary”, “Oh the demons come, they never can subside.” The only criticism is the seemingly totally out of place closing track “Beth/Rest” which has a cheesy keyboard piano sound more at home on a Peter Cetera ballad from the 1980s. However, they are absolved from this sin, based on the rest of the album’s sheer warmth and beauty.
Overall, there is a sense of acceptance and of hope in the lyrics and music. It seems wrong to dip in and listen to individual tracks when the record works so well as one 40-minute aural travelogue soundscape across middle America, which is name-checked in several of the song titles. Let this album haunt you in a warm and comforting way. Such is the musical density of this album, it is destined to keep revealing more with each listen and become a favorite mood piece of many for years to come.
MP3 Stream: “Holocene”