When considering the context of the two CDs, understanding on the difference in sound and material makes more sense. Usually the context wouldn’t be important to the listener in considering the success of an album, but in light of both these CDs it is necessary. The first, For Emma, forever ago was produced in a time just after Justin Vernon, the lead singer, broke away from his previous group to form Bon Iver. The music came while he went into “hibernation” mustering his feelings of guilt, loss and love. This album, on the contrary, was produced as an established band; one that chose to develop and experiment with what was at their disposal.
My first impression of this album left me on the negative end of the spectrum: I hated it. It is difficult to find middle ground or take a neutral stance as it is that different to their first album in sound and approach. To fully appreciate Bon Iver, the second album, I should have evaluated the CDs as separate entities, but considering that it is under one label and, essentially, one brand the separation is difficult.
I found it hard to get into the feel of the album. Where I was expecting the acoustic and soulfulness of For Emma, Bon Iver collided with my ideas completely. This could have been his intention. I did long for the former sound but this wasn’t an extension or sequel of the first album. Rather, it was a new venture; a journey that would, ideally, stretch the bands musicality and expand their audience base. Commercial is not synonymous with the bands’ vision, considering their nature as an indie band, but they aren’t very far it. In the case of Hinnom and Minnesota, the music mirrored Coldplay’s recent sound or, on another occasion, in beth/rest, it replicated a generic song from the 80s.
The need to experiment and allow for more freedom in arrangement of songs is vital, but to what end? Bon Iver appeals to a minority; to a certain ear that “gets” their music. If the change was for the purpose of broadening the listenership, mission accomplished, but it does run the risk of losing their old fans. Like me.
With keen ears I listened out for the melancholy sound that would feed my emotion but was greeted with a more light hearted sound. I had to will myself to get through the entire album but was comforted when I heard tracks that brought on a wave of nostalgia. Holocene reminded me a lot of Roslyn, For Emma. Also, a new track that I enjoyed was Wash. It was one that didn’t spin me into a web of feelings but rather, in its elevated way, took me to another world.
As intentional as the experimental move was, it was not received with enthusiasm on my part. The second album did, however, win a Grammy award for Best Alternative music album which suggests, as Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes claims, and contrary to my response, that it is “the searchingness that makes it potent”.