Wisconsin’s own backwoods darling, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), has decided to tease the masses that fervently gobbled up his 2007/2008 debut with a quickie four-track EP for the New Year. And tease he does.
This sucker does not deliver.
The aforementioned debut For Emma, Forever Ago was blissfully simple and calming. It was perfectly timed and once the album was over, you were either completely relaxed or asleep. Mission accomplished. The big problem with Blood Bank is that it’s totally listenable, but plays like the lost diaries of its predecessor.
Beginning with the title track, a plot device is poorly assembled amidst a boring refrain. I kept expecting the guitars to pick up a bit and give us a taste of DeVotchka excitement, but nope. Just bland repetition and lyrics that reference snow, the woods, rubbing your hands to keep them warm, kissing and Christmas morning. It’s perfectly acceptable subject matter. And it’s perfectly average.
The following two tracks continue in For Emma fashion, but without the same creativity and emotional pull. They don’t inspire attention. They drowse on for seven minutes, keeping you wishing they’d explain themselves a little bit more.
There’s a moment on “Beach Baby” when a slide guitar appears out of nowhere. You expect something awesome. A new direction. Anything. But the new instrumentation eventually dies, as do hopes for variation. The same can be said for the Billy Joel-esque “Running On Ice” piano at the beginning of “Babys”. Expectations are never quite met.
Closer “Woods” (again, we get it) abuses the voice-modulating synthesizer in a big way — we all cashed in our vocoder chips when we got into Imogen Heap that one week during college. When you consider that one of Vernon’s greatest assets is his spectacularly expressive voice, it makes no sense that he would crud everything up by layering the crap out of his refrain and intersperse it with what can only be defined as caterwauling. Auto-tune worked well as a subtle augmentation in For Emma’s “The Wolves (Act I and II)”, but it doesn’t work as Vernon’s primary instrument.
Blood Bank wouldn’t be so disappointing if For Emma, Forever Ago hadn’t been so singularly great. Vernon’s debut was definitely among the best albums of 2008. But if he’s going to keep people on this train into the Wisconsin wilderness, he’s going to have to offer more growth and excitement than he did between his first and second offerings. I’m looking forward to hearing what his next full-length has in store. Hopefully, it’s something we haven’t heard before. (Jagjaguwar, 2009)
By Katie Koivisto