If bearded sad dudes with acoustic guitars are not typically your thing, it’s understandable why you may have avoided Bon Iver until now. And yet you are wrong to do so. At least if we’re talking about Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar), which is one of the most astounding-sounding albums of 2011, even if “bearded sad dude” is still a big part of the band’s appeal. Bon Iver’s retiring frontman, Justin Vernon, may have been coaxed out of his cabin to join Kanye’s roving party, but that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly in touch with his inner Dr. Funkenstein. This is a slow, sometimes somber record. You have to work hard to make out more than a few words at a stretch, but the very tone of Vernon’s voice is that of someone weighed down by a dump truck’s worth of romantic ennui.
But Vernon has earned the right to his epic-scale moping. For one thing, the guy has one soulful-ass voice. Bon Iver could be mistaken as the work of a Quiet Storm killer who just happened to wander into an alt-country session. (Turns out Kanye didn’t just go cherry-picking indie singers for perverse, known-only-to-Kanye reasons.) More importantly, he has morphed into something like a mixing board genius. Bon Iver’s essentially one-man-band debut, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, featured the kind of barely there production values that appealed to folks who still think “stark” equals “sincere.” But the way he tried to tart up his strumming after the fact made it obvious that Vernon would one day reach toward a widescreen sound.
On Bon Iver, he has arrived, working up a mix of lonesome ’70s country-rock, unctuous ’80 soft-rock, and faintly psychedelic ’90s art-rock. It’s defiantly nondigital, but it has as much attention paid to musical texture as any deep-listening electronic record I can name, with a music shop’s worth of pedal steel, keyboards, sax, strings, etc. It’s probably the only album around that will have you thinking of Neil Young’s Harvest, Sting’s Fields of Gold, early Kranky albums, and the KLF’s Chill Out all at once.
It’s not quite all things to all people. (Note that I left out punk rock, pop-rock, glam-rock.…) But Vernon’s beefed-up studio chops put most indie acts wrestling with the soft, sophisticated side of ’70s and ’80s rock to shame. He gets not only the vibe of those records, made by sensitive rock stars with back-to-nature longings, but he’s also aware that the vibe was achieved by bringing together super-fluent session guys and boom-time recording budgets, and using atmospheric effects out the yin-yang. The fact that he achieved all of this on (presumably) an indie budget with a group of talented pals is one thing. What’s more striking is that his Laurel Canyon dreams aren’t inhibited by the irony that grips so many indie dudes suspicious of that era’s excess. His evocations of the ’80s have a zillion-dollar sheen and a homemade charm; you get both platinum-plated keyboards and the intimate sound of in-studio chatter.
Vernon is definitely, shamelessly going for a Big Canvas album here. From the first notes of “Perth,” the buzzing insistence of For Emma is replaced by something silkier and more insinuating, which doesn’t stop it from erupting into a blown-out outro of Crazy Horse craziness. And it takes titanium guts to dredge up the supernaturally slick sound of Higher Love–era Steve Winwood without winking, as he does on “Beth/Rest.” Throughout, the arrangements are stuffed with fuzz bass and Satie-ish sprinkles of piano and late-night talk-show-band horn sections. But Bon Iver is so airy, spacious, and seamless, it could be one long song broken into tracks for iTunes-organization purposes. And he has learned how to make each instrument sound maximally luscious. Finger-picking and drum rolls are remarkably right-next-to-your-ear crisp, but other times guitars and keyboards are so smothered in effects they approach shoegazer levels of disembodied swirliness.
Vernon has clearly studied Buckingham-the-producer-of-Tusk, but not so much Buckingham-the-songwriter-of-Rumours. Memorable hooks sometimes get sacrificed to the music’s gently-down-the-stream drift. “Hinnom, TX” is drowsy ambient meets Americana that’s beautiful, but just kinda washes over you. And anyone who’s still wary of “indie” minus the pop will long for a chorus that isn’t swallowed by word-smearing falsetto and mucho reverb. Like so many singers of his generation, Vernon seems torn between selling his lyrics and using his voice as just another emotional cue in the thick mix. But if you’re looking for an album to get lost in, who knew a guy previously feted for stripped-down “realness” would provide the year’s best?