Buried deep in the back of the opening track of Bon Iver’s recent self-titled album is the click of drumsticks. In front is a guitar line that, by itself, is haunting and beautiful enough. But buried deep behind the beautiful things on the surface are the things like those clicking drumsticks, the things that creep up slowly, the things that fill in the space around the more obvious (more easy) beauty.
Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was a careful study in intimacy and the smallness of the sonic space there, but that kind of intimacy is an easy sell. This record is all about what happens to that intimacy when the walls are pushed back to let in… well, everything.
The walls getting pushed back might be more than just a stylistic choice; Bon Iver has developed a serious amount of cachet in the world of indie singer-songwriters. And the transition into more success and into bigger studios often causes these confessional singer-songwriters to step back from the lo-fi microphones. But while some musicians let their sound bloat to fill that newly created space, Bon Iver has maintained a tight rein on his sound to instead fill the space surrounding it with layers, revealing a more subtle beauty.
This new space is the reason why a lot of lo-fi, acoustic artists have sort of faltered on the leap from home-recorded tracks of just their voice and a guitar to the more ornamented sound that often comes with more money. One major example of this is obviously Iron and Wine, a band that never seemed to recapture the understated beauty of the early lo-fi recordings after adding a band and orchestra. Iron and Wine’s songs remained lyrically adept and still evoked some real pathos, but they were presented in a way that, for all of their prettiness, still felt too big for their own good.
Bon Iver, on the other hand, has thrived after his sonic expansion. He’s folded in a few new styles (there’s more than a little R&B and 80s pop here), and he’s taken a few lessons from the masters of big spaces (the sound of this album evokes Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens). The album comes complete with the Bon Iver staples: barely-sensible lyrics (more constructed for their aesthetic worth than written for their meaning) and lilting falsetto. It’s all not just bigger, but also more full (note the pleasant surprise of singer and mastermind Justin Vernon’s full voice rumbling through periodically).
But that fullness is only half of the picture of what makes the record so great. For all of its depth, this album is also still very interested in the warmth of intimacy. And it’s a paradoxical intimacy here, more akin to the intimacy of a great orator in front of a rumbling crowd than the intimacy of a confessor in a lonely room.
While the intimacy of someone confessing their deep feelings over light acoustic guitar in a stark barn can be obvious and palpable and affecting, it’s also cheap. Bon Iver instead opts to put a lot of space around himself, letting the sounds fill the space, creating a more expansive beauty. It’s a hard trick to pull off, the intimacy of a crowded room. But when it’s pulled off so well, it’s pretty remarkable.