In the indie world of today, it is all too easy to rapidly win the hearts and minds of the NPR faithful and then lose them just as quickly. Considering that For Emma, Forever Ago was actually recorded during a cabin sabbatical in 2007, doubts that Vernon —now with Mike Noyce and Sean Carey — might prove unable to expand upon his heartfelt, folk masterpiece were entirely justified. His latest EP under the band name Bon Iver, Blood Bank — though unfairly burdened with far more pressure than the four rewarding tracks contained are meant to bear – is a gorgeous, lush effort which mines Vernon’s rich past while still developing the sound and the meaning of Emma even further.
Judging by his music, Vernon cares little about appeasing critics or fans hungrily awaiting miracles from the Wisconsin man with the body of a lumberjack and the soul of a transcendentalist poet. The songs arise naturally and openly from Vernon. “Blood Bank” begins with a gentle, building phrase on strings which quickly gives way to Vernon’s falsetto cooing and distorted, quickly strummed chords. Most notable about the song are the changes in tempo as Vernon goes from triumphant to philosophical in his story of fresh love. Stanzas about that initial rush of flirtation, “Well I met you at the blood ban/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/Matched any of the names we knew on the tags” play like the opening scenes of an indie movie, quirky but charming. To deliver the chorus, Vernon halts his arrangements and delivers the chorus: “And I said I know it well.” The line is simple but doused in enough emotion and yearning that it works exactly as well as the refrains in Emma.
The most experimental songs on the album are closing tracks “Babys” and “Woods.” The former is notable for being driven by a constantly repeating melodic phrase on piano rather than Vernon’s trusted steel string guitar. The lyrics, however, are vintage — spare and filled with ambiguity: “Summer comes to multiply/But I, I’m the carnival of peace.” It is a deliberate allusion to and rejection of the season largely responsible for shaping Vernon, winter. This peace is short lived, ended by the dark statement “But my woman and I, my woman and I know what we’re for.”
Though Vernon had flirted with autotune in Emma during “The Wolves (Act I and II),” he takes the device to heretofore unseen lengths. “Woods” consists layer upon layer of Vernon’s vocals, each at a different pitch and distorted to a different degree until there is a ascendant, harmonizing chorus with digitally inflected tenor and bass. Kanye West used the program to distance himself from his emotions — trusting only a robotic imitation of himself to deliver what he felt, knowing his limited, expressive rapping voice could not carry the emotions. Vernon’s motivations are far more mysterious. It is apparent he can sing and sing well, endowed with an angelic falsetto, just short of a castrati. Whatever the reasons may be, one must marvel at how Vernon casts off expectations and brings to light the beauty and the darkness he discovered in those woods.