In terms of lighting up the charts, this year’s most lucrative break-up album—that tried-and-blue standby—was Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, a departure for the iconoclastic rapper-producer not just musically (via the AutoTuned singing and monochromatic production), but tonally: Hip-hop’s first contribution to the lovelorn canon is an angry piece of work. But this year’s poll hails another product of disintegration that accomplishes more, and with less.
More than a year before West began bleating, after the dissolution of both a band and a romance, Justin Vernon, the frontman (and essentially lone man) of Bon Iver, left his home in North Carolina and took a guitar and four-track to his father’s solitary northern Wisconsin hunting lodge. He eventually emerged with For Emma, Forever Ago, a rewarding, confusing bedroom-folk document of aloneness, by turns breathtaking and sloppy, ethereal and exigent. The reclusion, imperfection, and brokenhearted pall recall Heartbreak‘s process, but West is less opaque, and less effective—his deepest query (“How could you be so heartless?”) pales beside the heavily overdubbed Emma opener, “Flume.” There, Vernon toys with literalism—clearly, calmly singing “It’s enough”—before descending into something less understood—alliterative wordplay that might still hint at the deeply felt—at one point moaning the borderline-delirious “Lapping lakes like leery loons.” For every incantation of “what might have been lost,” there is lyrical subversion: On “Lump Sum,” he sings, “My mile could not pump the plumb/In my arbor ’till my ardor.” It’s emotional muck, ramblings turned gospel. And in that batshit way, it succeeds.
West’s album feels urgent and instantaneous, but fallow, the musings of a teenager trying to glue his first love back together. It hurts, we know. But Vernon, with time to kill and art to make, never seems like he’s working too hard. His attitude is punch-drunk—not pissed—as he fumbles for the words to explain himself, even if they don’t exist. Throughout, he leans on a crinkled falsetto, rich but rarely melodramatic, an instrument West can never have. Vernon separates his cry-fest from the mewlings of the next lonely heart by mining that bewildering feeling when someone looks at you and says, “No more” for all it’ll allow, and then maybe more than that. But the time he’s given himself to reflect has squelched some of his bitterness and results in more of an elegy than an excoriation. While Heartbreak aims to be a modern-day Blood on the Tracks—Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” replaced by West’s “spoiled little L.A. girl”—Emma is without a true forebearer, a shaded and stolen moment, only occasionally hinting at Elliott Smith’s XO, another ambling but heartbreaking piece of popcraft.
In an ironic twist, Vernon’s full-band live shows—the nightly, repeated recitation of songs borne of what sounds like the most difficult time in his life—are lively, buoyant even. On record, “Skinny Love” is gut-wrenching; in concert, it becomes a sort of shambling clap-along: power-pop for the unironically flannelled. West’s Heartbreak performances, by contrast, are often serious and awkward affairs—typically a splenetic live performer, he introduced “Love Lockdown” at September’s MTV Video Music Awards by standing stock-still and clutching his microphone, as a red LED heart pinned to his chest flashed, revealing a cracked bolt down the center. There is one more similarity between them, though: In a hilarious bit of snake-eating-its-tail joie de vivre, Vernon, on his now-released Blood Bank EP, sings with AutoTune on the final track, “Woods.” Naturally, he sounds better—and a bit happier—than West.