Bon Iver: “Blood Bank”
It is, perhaps, the oldest, most familiar configuration in pop music: A guy and his acoustic guitar, baring his soul and allowing his emotions to flow forth unfettered by fussy arrangements or slick production. Go to any coffee shop in America and you’re likely to find some minor variation on this setup. Yet, as familiar as it is, it seems that, every year or so, the indie powers that be pick a new sensitive troubadour to herald as the next great folkie– sometimes due to the presence of real talent, sometimes due to some inscrutable alignment of the stars that only the hippest of hipsters know how to read, and sometimes due to the simple, sheer force of sincerity.
The breakout success of Bon Iver– the stage name for mopey, falsetto-wielding folkie Justin Vernon– is probably due to some combination of the three. Certainly, the songs on his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, which found its way on to a huge number of year-end lists at the close of 2008, exhibit some real songwriting craft and musical dexterity, and, just as certainly, Bon Iver happened to come along at a time when the indie world was a bit short on this sort of emotional, bare-bones singer-songwriter fare. As much as anything, though, the album owes its success to its tear-jerking backstory, the context in which it emerged. Indie lore and press bios hold that Vernon broke up with his long-time girlfriend, and, heartbroken, retreated to some rustic cabin where he exorcised his demons via acoustic guitar strumming, nakedly autobiographical poetry, and quivering falsetto. And if that story seems a little hammy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true; listening to the songs on Bon Iver’s debut, it’s obvious that the guy’s heart really was broken, and that the album was crafted out of genuine hurt and need for expression, not some carefully-plotted design to become indiedom’s next big thing.
In other words, it never really seemed like Vernon wanted to become a star, but a star he became, at least within indie pop and folk circles; a glowing review from Pitchfork Media led to more and more gushing reviews– his album was one of the ten highest-rated of the year, according to MetaCritic.com– and it’s hard to figure out exactly how Vernon feels about it. Ever since For Emma caught fire, his actions as a recording artist have been very tentative. Rather than immediately release a full-length follow-up, he cranked out a four-song EP, called Blood Bank, in early 2009, as it to slowly accustom listeners to Bon Iver v. 2.0– which has supposedly been expanded from just a guy and his guitar to a full-length band, though, listening to the sparse intimacy of the EP, you’d never know it. It’s possible that Vernon was so surprised by his success that he’s still feeling out exactly how to respond to it; then again, it’s just as easy to believe that the EP is a shrewd way to capitalize on the album’s success, to strike while the iron’s still hot.
Either way, Blood Bank is a strange collection, as it seems split between typical Bon Iver numbers and songs that throw a wrench into his formula in odd and unexpected ways. As the title suggests, it’s every bit as mopey and dour as For Emma, and, at its best, it captures a sense of warm, enveloping sadness every bit as vividly as his debut did. The title song, which sounds basically like a For Emma song save for the fact that it’s played on an electric rather than an acoustic guitar, is a hypnotic, sadsack tale that’s strung together by evocative imagery and eerie, stream-of-thought prose. And “Babys” finds him trading the acoustic guitar for steadily building piano chords, a strangely riveting number that earns him the “neo-soul” label on his MySpace.
Ostensibly, Blood Bank is a chance for Vernon to introduce his fans to his new, full-band incarnation, but, save for a few little flourishes here and there, the album still feels like the creation of a single man, secluded in some remote cabin. Fans who loved the first album for its intimate simplicity will be happy about this, but they won’t be nearly so happy at the new ways our mopey hermit has found to experiment and entertain himself– specifically, an attempt at studio-assisted art-pop called “Woods.” Seemingly inspired by Kanye West’s divisive 808s and Heartbreak album, Vernon creates an entire looped, pitch-corrected choir of himselves, using liberal amounts of Auto Tune to achieve the desired, warbly effect. And it’s just awful, bordering on unlistenable, with the abysmal attempts at computer-enhanced R&B harmonies plummeting into dreadful parody.
The remaining song is a fine, if unremarkable, Bon Iver songs, which means that, essentially, the record is memorable mostly for its scattershot qualities, its feeling of tentativeness. An album as organic and assured as For Emma this is certainly not; it’s the sound of the artist struggling to find himself, to remain true to his muse while also moving his art forward. As such, it may well be a noble project, but it reveals all the cracks in Vernon’s craft, and highlights the fact that For Emma, though certainly a good album, was not necessarily the birth of a particularly unique or remarkable new talent. So while the Blood Bank EP could have been a sign pointing the way forward, it mostly ends up leading nowhere instead.