Justin Vernon's life could be the most implausible reality-TV show ever. Five years ago, he split from his beardy prog-folk band, DeYarmond Edison, and moved to a hunting cabin in Wisconsin, where he recorded a spare, falsetto-filled LP under the moniker Bon Iver. For Emma, Forever Ago was a beautiful record, and it quickly earned Vernon his own cult. Then Kanye West called. Vernon worked extensively with him on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, singing and co-writing. Just last month, a piano prodigy named Jasmine Van den Bogaerde (stage name: Birdy) had a Top 20 U.K. hit with Vernon's "Skinny Love." The American Idol guest-spot invite should be arriving any day now.
Vernon's latest, Bon Iver, was not made in a hunting cabin (for the record, it was cut in a converted swimming pool attached to a veterinarian's office). More electrified and elaborately arranged — more everything, really — than For Emma, but with the same woolly ambiance, it shows a deeply creative guy in a new, spotlighted context. For a self-titled LP, it sounds more like an exploration than a statement of purpose. But it's the searchingness that makes it potent.
Bon Iver isn't quite a crossover move. Big-pop synths appear, but more in the way a radio hit sounds leaking out of your lover's earbuds. The songs are often named for remote towns, real and imagined, where hearts are bared in unlikely juxtapositions. "Hinnom, TX" sets off horns and static bursts like distant fireworks; "Minnesota, WI" blends what sounds like banjos and acoustic guitars with a gnarly bass swell and hushed R&B horns, with Vernon singing "Imma lay that call back on ya" like he's covering a TV on the Radio number at a late-night bluegrass jam.
It all feels like a logical progression from what came before: the Auto-Tune experiment that jump-started the West collaboration ("Woods," from Vernon's Blood Bank EP, which became the core of West's "Lost in the World"), the baroque art-pop side project Gayngs and For Emma's woodsy soul folk, which harbored a ghost of Midwestern funk. It's no coincidence Vernon's hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is essentially an outer suburb of Prince's Minneapolis.
The draw remains Vernon's raw-honey falsetto and mastery of voice processing; he uses Auto-Tune and other tools to amplify and embellish emotions, not just polish them, reimagining Peter Frampton's talk-boxing for iPod Touch-toting college kids. Check "Wash" — a plea refracted through a kaleidoscope of effects, built around piano and wrapped in gorgeous strings. The approach, as West no doubt sensed, makes Vernon one of our era's defining singers.
The ideas on Bon Iver — Colin Stetson's shimmery horn parts, Rob Moose's elegant arrangements — are engaging even when they don't lead anywhere, and the music is beautiful, even when it veers into schmaltz (see the Phil Collins-meets-the Alan Parsons Project "Beth/Rest," then insert wisecrack about Wisconsinites and cheese love). There's nothing as gorgeous here as "Re: Stacks," the closing meditation on For Emma, although the countryish "Towers" comes close. But Vernon is more than a bearded indie rocker with a taste for rural roots music. He's a soul auteur, and he's just getting started.