Man gets girl. Man loses girl. Man cries off to a cabin in the woods and writes songs about girl. Songs make man famous. Man follows songs up with... Oh, it would have been so easy to do – feign the agony despite a life now sans heartbreak (one presumes). And why wouldn't you? Misery can be a default mode for many people. Misery loves company. More than anything, misery sells – just ask that dude from Staind.

Justin Vernon, aka man in the cabin, aka Bon Iver, has decided to do something different. He famously wrote and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago as a kind of deep-winter Wisconsin therapy session, only to emerge blinking into the outside world to discover that everyone wanted a piece of his melancholy torpor. For Emma was an unforeseen success, propelled by the single 'Skinny Love'. The record's plaintive acoustic songs of sorrow hitting home with just about anyone who had ever loved and lost (so, basically, everyone).

But rather than attempting to rehash that record note for doleful note, Vernon has lifted the foundations of the Bon Iver sound – the sparseness, the wintery delicacy, that voice – and thrown the cabin doors open to a world of new, colourful textures. The sonic palette on Bon Iver is broader, encompassing drums, brass and even synthesizers. In terms of what has gone previously, the nearest reference point would be 'Blood Bank', the opening track from the EP of the same name, but only in the sense that it was a song that utilised electric (rather than acoustic) guitars.

Opener 'Perth' glides ethereally along a reverbed guitar sound not unlike that used on ‘Blood Bank’. But the song shows greater adventure structurally and a pleasing use of dynamics; Vernon's voice and guitar take turns carrying the song, weaving around marching band drums. Dynamics are used to even greater effect on 'Minnesota, WI', which throws together a trademark Vernon falsetto hook, guitar and banjo arpeggios, more drums, wind instruments and – most surprisingly on first listen – some 80s-style synthesisers. The two songs segue together, opening the album in as bold a fashion as such an understated artist could manage.

But a strong opening gambit is almost what makes the album come unstuck. Both songs are excellently crafted and quite probably the best on the record. Whereas For Emma opened in strong fashion with 'Flume' and 'Lump Sum', they were followed by the likes of 'Skinny Love', 'The Wolves (Act I and II)' et al. Bon Iver, though still containing some great music, is a little more unbalanced; the record doesn’t quite build on its early promise and dips alarmingly towards the end.

There are a number of highly enjoyable songs, though: 'Michicant' is a lovely little lullaby waltz; 'Holocene' is probably the closest in style to For Emma, carried by a pretty picked acoustic guitar part, aided by the addition of unobtrusive drums and saxophone; 'Towers' is bright-sounding and upbeat, shifting midway into an almost Bright Eyes-like bar room shuffle. But best of all is the record's other standout, 'Wash'. A simple, beautiful piano part is textured by an affecting string arrangement and gentle touches of slide guitar; Vernon's whispered falsetto both confessional and comforting.

Unfortunately, things begin to unravel towards the end. Those 80s-style keyboards re-emerge, but whereas on 'Minnesota, WI' the combination of synths with driving drum parts added something cool and interesting to what was already an excellent song, here they fall flat. The keyboards on 'Calgary' aren't a problem in and of themselves – the fact it's not a very interesting song is. But that's nothing compared to risible closer, 'Beth/Rest' – the ending credits soundtrack to a Brat Pack-style teen romance no-one needed to make. The combination of cheesy keyboards, saxophone and sub-Clapton guitar licks is jarring to say the least, and makes for a disappointing ending.

 

All in all, it's a shame these latter tracks made the cut because they detract from the album as a whole; their placement on the record makes what should be a triumph feel almost like a damp squib. And with Bon Iver's strong opening songs you have a record that is somewhat polarised. It is still a very good album, with some pretty songs, but it lacks For Emma, Forever Ago's sense of balance – of completeness.

It could also be argued that this album won't be remembered like its predecessor because it lacks the hook of Vernon's heartbreak to hang upon. For Emma was an album that affected many people, myself included, and while this is a highly enjoyable comeback, it is unlikely to go down as a classic. Regardless, it's preferable that Vernon avoided the pitfall of repetition and potentially becoming a parody of himself. Having branched out sonically for this sophomore effort, we can enjoy the record for what it is and look forward to what the man in the cabin does next.

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