In the three years since Justin Vernon became known beyond the local scenes of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, three words — cabin, beard, Kanye — have seemingly become requirements in discussing his work. And while it's tempting to review his no-longer-solo second record without mentioning where he recorded his first (2008's For Emma, Forever Ago), his facial scruff, and the pop star who pushed him to new prominence, it's possible, too, that these aspects of Vernon's biography speak to deeper, more essential elements of his music.
His work with West, for one, speaks to his ravenous collaborative tendencies. Bon Iver is a gloriously intricate full-band effort, but one that incorporates lessons from every artist Vernon spent studio time with since releasing For Emma. (And there are many, from the Rosebuds to Land of Talk to the guileless AM-radio supercollective Gayngs.) These magpie sensibilities reveal the wolfish auteur beneath the six-string and flannel, one with equal affection for John Prine and Bruce Hornsby. Throughout Bon Iver, Vernon unblinkingly replaces the moodily strummed six-strings of his debut with MIDI sequencers and full-on sax solos and unleashes fluttering orchestral touches and pedal steel behind the skittering twerks of his Auto-Tuned falsetto.
The self-imposed exile that gave birth to For Emma and the communal, deliberately-recruited sessions of his second suggest a kind of modular, adaptable musicality that thrives according to the demands and needs of Vernon's own emotional and creative needs. Dodging the easy narrative of his classic debut, Bon Iver doesn't so much cement the promise of Vernon's debut as broaden its terms.