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CD review: Bon Iver borrows the past with love

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Posted 7:25am on Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2011

Singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, who performs as Bon Iver, made quite a splash with his 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, a woodsy, anguished lament recorded in a remote Wisconsin cabin over a three-month period.

Between that critically adored record and this eponymous sophomore effort, the 30-year-old Vernon has become something of a minor indie-rock celebrity. His fragile tenor has popped up in unlikely places, including on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and covering Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

If Vernon felt any pressure, it never shows through on this gorgeous, 10-track album.

Many late-'80s/early-'90s pop flourishes exist just below the surface of the songs on Bon Iver. The hints are furtive: a splash of sinuous saxophone on Minnesota, WI; the rippling synthesizers of Hinnom, TX.

Album closer Beth/Rest is the most obvious example of recycling the past: Its glowing keyboards would bring a smile to Bruce Hornsby's face and its sax licks are pilfered from the You Belong to the City era. It's the sound of a child of the '80s finding comfort in the bland FM hits of his youth.

However, Bon Iver, recorded in a converted Wisconsin veterinarian's office, isn't interested in purely regurgitating the hits of yesteryear, as evidenced by the deeply layered, arresting tunes like Towers or Calgary.

Vernon, whose lyrics tend toward oblique references to life and love, is more concerned with mood than meaning. Bon Iver may strike some as too precious and slight.

For those who put this lush album on repeat and float away, hovering between relaxation and dreams, they will see precisely what Vernon has wrought: a keenly felt tone poem, meant to envelope and amaze -- not unlike dozing off at sunset.

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