BEST OF 2011: 20. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

He makes grown men cry, you know. Another case of not allowing yourself to be put off by the combination of hero worship and ludicrous overstatement, this one. Indeed, the weight of expectation is a curious beast. Sometimes it can work in your favour: Ian McEwan‘s lightweight ‘Amsterdam‘ getting plaudits after the failure to duly reward the majesty of ‘Enduring Love’, ‘Be Here Now‘ getting five star reviews after lukewarm responses to ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?‘ On other occasions it can leave with you no chance: most Radiohead albums since 2000 and the tiresome ‘is it as good as OK Computer or Kid A‘ comparisons, the forthcoming Stone Roses reunion gigs (trust me on this one). And then there are those who think “fuck it, people will give this a chance because of the last one” and crack on, doing their own thing. And while Justin Vernon didn’t suddenly unleash a new line in scatting jazz vocals here, ‘Bon Iver’ was quite pointedly not ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ part two.

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Exactly what it is, is another matter. It’s a pretty record, blessed with all sorts of sonic smuggery which charmed me from the off, and it’s an album which sounds curiously out of time. Which is not to say it is timeless, far from it in fact. ‘Bon Iver’ sounds pointedly dated at certain moments, not least on album closer ‘Beth/Rest’, which has predictably provoked buckets of wrath for its Eighties soft-rock tones. While there are undeniably contemporary references here and there, from the artwork to its last note it has the feeling of a moderately successful record of old, its beauty shining through despite the particular clothes of the time it has come from. Think ‘Punch The Clock’ by Elvis Costello, an album which was unmistakably made in the Eighties but which still stands tall thirty years on, thanks to the quality of its songwriting. I’m still not sure what particular artistic statement Vernon might be making by evoking middle of the road pop-rock schlock of old, but it’s not the enormo-howler some would have you believe. It’s more ‘Yuko & Hiro’ than ‘S.Y.M.M.‘ as end of album curveballs go.

There is much bigger, fully-fleshed out band sound to this album, which I gather is replicated pretty majestically onstage. It ensures that there’s a little more going on in all of these songs and the delicate way in which ‘Towers’ builds is a hushed delight, the drums only putting in an appearance in the second half of the track, and even then fleetingly. This is a great example of how to go ‘big’ without actually sounding excessive. It’s not fifteen orchestras, eighty-five overdubs and grandeur over quality. Yes, more money’s been spent and no, it’s no longer one man and his beard. But that’s already been done anyway.

The debut’s ubiquity meant that it got a little worn out at one point, anti-hype kicking in and restricting its emotional weight, and it is the substantial impact of that record which will ensure that people are ready and willing to give this release a shot. No bad thing, as I can’t imagine that the breakthrough would have been on the cards with ‘Bon Iver’. A delicate curio originating from the JagJaguwar stable (though released in the UK via 4AD) with gorgeous artwork and a handwritten lyric booklet, this should really be a bloggers’ favourite which cleans up in critical circles and sells a few hundred copies. Inevitably, it’s not been quite so critically lauded as the debut but that this was actually one of the most anticipated releases of 2011 is actually quite heartening, and shouldn’t take away from the fact that it’s actually a cracking set of songs.

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