Bon Iver Alliterates with “Blood Bank”

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Do we have to "understand" in order to experience?

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to take an EP.  Is it a bridge between albums? Is it a look at what is to come? Is it a small group of songs that don’t fit on the upcoming/past album? I’m not sure I can definitively answer any of those questions in regards to Bon Iver’s recent EP Blood Bank, but it seems safe to say that Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) isn’t just a one trick pony.

Blood Bank finds Vernon experimenting with some new sounds and leading the band from behind a new instrument (an electric piano) for a number of the songs on the EP.  The collection of four songs begins with the title track, which isn’t too much of a leap from where Vernon left us at the end of Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago.  There might be a little more rock & roll to it, but the song “Blood Bank” has the catchy melody, distinct phrasing and cryptic lyrics that populate For Emma, Forever Ago.

But as Blood Bank continues the songs (the second half of the record especially) deviate more and more from the sounds of For Emma, Forever.  The stillness and falsetto vocals of For Emma, Forever Ago are replaced with chiming electric guitars, atmospheric sounds of electric pianos and processors and on the title track Vernon’s rich baritone voice replaces the falsetto we’re so used to.

But the essence of Bon Iver’s first release remains.  The lyrics remain beautifully cryptic, giving one the sense of peeking in on a private conversation between lovers who only have to speak half sentences to each other.  Still, if you listen carefully even the content of the lyrics captures the subtlety of change within this record. In his ode to procreation Vernon sings of summer “my woman and I know what we’re for, summer comes to multiply, to multiply,” a subtle change for a man who took his pseudonym from the phrase “good winter.”

The full harmonies also remain and are even supplemented by chiming electric instruments and swooning atmospheric sounds.  The final song on the album, “Woods,” wanders the farthest from the sounds of For Emma, Forever Ago with it heavily processed sounds and its simple and short lyrics.  Maybe this final song is a picture of what is to come with Bon Iver’s second full length album.

Still Vernon solidifies himself, not as a Springsteen or Dylan-like story teller, but as an experience maker. Blood Bank finds Bon Iver moving even farther from any semblance of coherent narratives (both lyrically and musically) that might have existed between the lines of  For Emma, Forever Ago. The simple lyrics are repeated over and over while the music swoons and fold over on itself and the blended harmonies. Maybe this sometimes cryptic experience is what drew us to Bon Iver’s first album and will continue to draw us even as the sounds change.