Last year Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon blended his personal story, haunting melodies, and evocative lyrics on an album called For Emma, Forever Ago. The album found its way to almost everyone’s top-ten list at the end of the year, including mine. Considering the buzz, the normal backlash was fairly subdued — the music was that undeniable.
The story is pretty well known by now: Musician finds heartache after moving to North Carolina with his band. He decides to move back to his home state, where he isolates himself in his family’s hunting cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter. â€œI left North Carolina and went up there because I didnâ€™t know where else to go, and I knew that I wanted to be alone, and I knew that I wanted to be where it was cold,â€ Vernon told exclaim.ca last year.
During the three months he was there, though it wasn’t his intention to do so, he wrote and made primitive recordings of the songs that would become For Emma, Forever Ago. Ostensibly recorded as demos, the performances were so powerful that Vernon decided to release them as they were. He called the project Bon Iver, a slight alteration of the French term for “good winter.” A good winter indeed.
When it was time to go on tour, Vernon decided he didn’t want to be just another guy singing and playing an acoustic guitar. He found it boring. So a touring band was created with the addition of Sean Carey (drums, vocals, piano, vibes) and Mike Noyce (vocals, baritone guitar, guitar). Still, Vernon was concerned that the aching harmonies he’d recorded couldn’t be reproduced by just three voices. He took to handing out lyric sheets to his audiences so they could help out on some of the songs.
Now Bon Iver returns with Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar), a four-song EP that continues on the same trail blazed by Vernon last year. Once again the recordings came to life in that cabin in Dunn County, Wisconsin, most likely during the same period that the songs on For Emma were recorded, and once again Vernon executed all of the singing and playing himself, with one exception.
This time out he’s been able to take advantage of some new sounds that weren’t available for his full-length, including piano, slide guitar, and vocoder. I suppose the major difference between the two records comes down to temperature: while For Emma evoked the cold, dark winter, Blood Bank offers scenes of warmth amidst the chill, and even glimpses of summer. The title track offers this cozy scene of home and hearth: “And I said I know it well / That secret that we know, that we don’t know how to tell / I’m in love with your honor, I’m in love with your cheeks / What’s that noise up the stairs babe? Is that Christmas morning creaks?” And “Babys,” an outstanding ode to summer love, offers this repeated mantra: “Summer comes / To multiply / To multiply!”
Perhaps the most fascinating of the four tracks is the closer, “The Woods.” The entire song consists of four lines repeated a cappella over and over (“I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / To slow down the time”), with voices added on each round until a beautiful, Beach Boys-worthy chorale has been created. This is the song on which the vocoder is used to stunning effect.
Since there are only four songs on Blood Bank, I won’t offer one here. If you need a reference point, though, here’s “Flume,” the first track from For Emma, Forever Ago.
Blood Bank is available at Amazon.