Justin Vernon, AKA Bon Iver, is a very different man now than he used to be. Certainly, the tv-show featured, Kanye West-guesting folk musician of today is a far cry from the self-exiled mononucleosis-inflicted Vernon of two years back. So it’s no wonder that Bon Iver’s newest eponymous release is a different beast than his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago.
Luckily, with this album Vernon establishes himself as much more than a simple flash-in-the-pan, using his new status not as a crutch, but as an opportunity to expand his sound. Whereas For Emma was somewhat simplistic in approach – most of it consisted of Vernon’s layered vocals, acoustic guitar, and some soft drums – Bon Iver, Bon Iver brings in a wealth of guest musicians, giving the album more of a full band feel. Musically, the album is more layered, complex, and varied than Vernon’s ever been: opener “Perth” is, in the words of the man himself, a “Civil War-sounding heavy metal song”; “Beth/Rest” pretty much does away with the usual Bon Iver sound entirely, reverb-laden electric guitars and shimmering synths replacing the more common acoustics; and the album in general just has more expansive instrumentation, whether that be the use of distortion, synths, or saxophones. This doesn’t always work; the aforementioned “Beth/Rest” is a too close to the typical indie “80s-retro” aesthetic for comfort, and the album as a whole feels just a bit less personal than For Emma.
But what does makes the album work is that despite all the changes, this is still Justin Vernon through and through – his overdubbed harmonized vocals are present as always, and his general approach to songwriting hasn’t really changed. It’s an album that is at once different and entirely similar, displaying a growth in Vernon’s sound while still remaining as emotionally breathtaking as the first time out. More than anything, Bon Iver, Bon Iver proves something immensely important – that Justin Vernon is one of those few musicians that can do pretty much whatever they want and still somehow sound like themselves.