Part of the beauty of Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was the intimate, backwoods feel of the recording and the simplicity of Justin Vernon’s soaring, open wound of a voice with only minimal musical backing to distract from its impact. Even though Vernon had a few other people playing on the album, it was easy to imagine a solitary broken soul spilling his guts onto tape for hours at a time while the world went on without him. It was a truly aching, somewhat claustrophobic sound that was beautiful and unique. After a couple years in which his life was basically turned upside down thanks to the success of For Emma, Vernon’s second album is quite different. Where For Emma was stripped down and intimate, Bon Iver is packed with guest musicians, horn sections, strings, and extra vocalists. Every inch of sonic space is filled with sound, each one fighting for space and distracting from Bon Iver’s strength, namely Vernon’s vocals. It’s probably unfair to expect Vernon to replicate the sound of For Emma, but he could have found a middle ground between tender restraint and totally overdoing it. Instead, he’s working like mad to distance himself from the sound he established so well in a desperate attempt to make a “masterpiece” instead of For Emma, Pt. 2. Perhaps if he were a more skilled producer and arranger, things would have been better. Unfortunately, his style comes off more like sub-Enya with a beard than a true studio wizard. The muted, over-washed sound of the record is murky when it should be mysterious, flat when it should be 3-D, and his reliance on clichéd synth sounds is somewhat perplexing. While most of the record is underwhelming sonically, the last track, "Beth/Rest," is laughable. Sounding like it was recorded using a five-dollar Casio and featuring some of the worst dueling sax/guitar solos you’d ever imagine, it shoots for a majestic, album-ending feel but instead sounds like the theme song to a horrible '80s movie about unicorns (only not that good). Despite disasters like that, there are still enough moments of tender beauty and restraint to remind you why Bon Iver is worth caring about. The relatively restrained "Wash," which pits Vernon’s aching vocal orchestra against a jagged, repeating piano line (and only minimal strings and pedal steel), the first two-thirds of "Holocene" (before the mix bursts with saxes and unnecessary effects), the simple and affecting "Michicant" (if you can ignore the distractions) -- these have hints of the grace and understated emotion that made For Emma what it was. Hints aren’t enough to make the record a success, though, and by reaching too far, Vernon and Bon Iver fall flat with a huge thud. It’s a shame Vernon felt he had to take Bon Iver outside the cabin and into the world. He was doing just fine on his own and didn’t need all those people and instruments cluttering up the air. “Woods” proved that all Vernon needed to break a heart was his voice and some Auto-Tune. Though he can be praised for not just copying himself and trying to progress, to be honest, For Emma, Pt. 2 would have been far more satisfying than this overblown debacle.
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AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra