You know exquisite tenderness is on the cards just 23 seconds in. Bon Iver’s 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, knocked us sideways with its strikingly minimal beauty. Breathtakingly intimate and hushed as fresh-fallen snow, it glowed with a woody warmth, due mostly to Justin Vernon’s now unmistakeable, sweetly forlorn falsetto. But had BI decided to repeat this triumph, it would have been hugely disappointing. Not because you can have too many lovely records, but because it would ‘fix’ him as an artist, rather than show him as one with a creatively promiscuous drive. Bon Iver does just that, without risk of spooking the horses. Well, save for one very Marmitey song indeed.
What’s most obvious is that this is not a solo effort. Nor was it recorded in an isolated log cabin in winter like his debut. Players contribute strings, horns, pedal-steel guitar, choral vocals, drums and processed electronics, so even ‘typically’ haunting songs such as ‘Perth’ or ‘Wash’ are not. One uses a military snap to offset thickly burred guitar, while the other wraps strings and braided vocals around a piano motif until it’s all but inaudible. ‘Calgary’ gleams like a city horizon on a rainy night, washed in retro synths and borne on ’80s beats, while the luminous ‘Lisbon Oh’ mixes Morse bleeps with Bowie’s Berlin vibe. It’s the closer, ‘Beth/Rest’, that blows expectations – an ’80s soft-rock ballad with a twist. Put bluntly, it’s Toto’s ‘Africa’ as reimagined by Kanye West (whose recent brilliant LP sampled BI’s ‘Woods’). It teeters on the brink of cheesiness, but melts resistance after two listens – and if that’s not a triumph of emotional response over learned prejudice, we don’t know what is. Our love intensifies.