The new Bon Iver album is good. Maybe I'd even venture to say it's really good, but only while I'm listening to it. While the record's playing, I enjoy it. Hell, there are even moments that leave me astounded by its near brilliance, but then the album ends, and I'm left feeling empty, almost demoralized.
I remember the first few times I listened to For Emma, Forever Ago and being left in awe. Justin Vernon's hauntingly beautiful, ethereal voice set against a backdrop of bare music that even at its most relaxed moments (and there are a lot more relaxed moments than clamorous ones), managed to maintain a sense of urgency. For Emma... wasn't merely impressive, it was downright percussive. The record was stark without ever sounding austere. Instead, it was grand and striking even though it was subdued and arid. For Emma... sounded warmer and more endearing not in spite of but because of its sparseness. I've listened to that album several hundred times in the last four years, and never have I felt anything but dumbstruck by its unbridled honesty and unassuming sincerity.
But when I finish listening to Bon Iver, I don't feel anything like that. Don't mistake my words, had Vernon made For Emma, Forever Ago...Again, I would have felt cheated, or at least unenthused. I already own that record. I already know it inside and out. I don't need or want it again. And if the Blood Bank ep did anything, it showed us that Justin Vernon had no intention of being a derivative songwriter. Regardless of your overall impressions of the 4-song collection, Blood Bank was the work of a man who needed a directional shift. And maybe Blood Bank should have served as a glimpse into the future, but while the direction was new, the tone was familiar (although far less overt than on For Emma...). But direction and tone are obviously two wholly separate beasts, because as I listen to Bon Iver, I realize I'm no Nostradamus, because never could have predicted that, the caliber of the record notwithstanding, Justin Vernon would offer up an album utterly devoid of the heart-on-his-sleeve songwriting and earnest delivery that made For Emma, Forever Ago so flooring.
There was nothing casual about For Emma.... Justin Vernon sounds like he's bleeding for those songs. He sounds like every note he sings, every chord he plays is a necessity, absolutely vital. But on Bon Iver, regardless of how well-written the songs are, how impeccably executed the performances on the album are, how artistically admirable his attempt was, it's just not right. Regardless of how much this regrettably makes me sound like a High School Football Coach, the album lacks heart. The songs are good, but there's no conviction. There's no desperation, it's like he already feels like he's got nothing left to prove. And frankly, that sucks.
Even though an artist never has to prove a single thing to me, I want them to behave like they have to prove everything to my all of the time. The second an artist decides they have nothing left to prove (even if they don't), aren't they just going through the motions? If you're not trying to convince the world of something, haven't you rendered yourself invalid? And if you are invalid, can you still be an artist, or are you relegated to the status of entertainer, simple performer?
Has Justin Vernon gotten too big for his britches? Has working with Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, John Legend (that one kind of makes sense to me), and Rick Ross gone to his head? I would think that the Volcano Choir and Gayngs projects would have been enough of an artistic distraction to satisfy his obvious desire to escape the "confessional singer/songwriter" label, but apparently not. Has big-name, big-money artists given him a thirst for something unattainable by a simple indie fella?
Ultimately, I would say no, but I do think it's given him a level of confidence, or maybe conceit is the right word (although I sincerely hope not), that is not becoming of him, or of what the Bon Iver moniker should, or at least did, represent. Maybe Justin Vernon's trying to be some enigmatic character that he's not worthy of being, or maybe I'm just some judgmental asshole wanting to force him into parameters that make sense to me because his music is too advanced and intelligent to, but I think it's more the former and less the latter.
Really, I think that based on the Bon Iver record, Justin Vernon wanted to put as much distance between himself and For Emma... as possible without going as far as to disown the debut. I think he's been influenced by these superstar collaborations too much. I think his desire to show growth pushed him away not from what he did, but how he did it, and as a result, the album will never have that same gut-wrenching impact that For Emma... had because no amount of artistic exploration can make up for the absence of sincerity.
I don't know. Maybe all or none of that is true. maybe it's somewhere in between, or maybe it's nowhere near either. I think you'll have to pick it up and decide for yourself, because, despite all of my grousing, the album is in fact good and worth listening to. It's just a matter of whether it's an artistic progression or an egotistical regression. I didn't want it to sound like For Emma..., but I needed it to feel like it to really care, it just doesn't. No doubt, the second Bon Iver record is good, but it will never matter the way the first one did.