album review: bon iver – blood bank

07/04/2009

(each month i get together with some kindred music loving fools: luke and jules.  we chose an album in advance, write a review, trade, critique and discuss.  it’s a fun way to feed our musical addiction and stretch our creative muscles.  it’s really too bad we haven’t stretched our creative muscles enough to come up with a cool name for our gathering, we’ve just embraced the nerdiness and call it ‘music club’.  this is one such review.)

March 2009

After we fell in love with the quiet soul-baring of Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago, the quick release of an EP begs the question: was Blood Bank to be a chronological continuation post For Emma: perhaps a happy ending to the sad story?  Or a further layering of detail into the tragedy?

The album begins with the strong-voiced title track.  At first listen it leaves us with more questions than answers.  ‘Blood Bank’ is more storytelling than we see in the other tracks, albeit a story we will never fully know.  The song, in similar vein to Justin Vernon’s other work, includes amazingly lyrical sensory detail; this gives us confidence the scenes are real, not imagined.  Although I do wonder if the moon was really “waning crescent” or if this particular lunar phase conveniently rhymed with “just like the present”.  Regardless, lines like this put us in the car with Justin, a girl and a candy bar…and, sad as you think it might end up, you know you want to be there.

While we so easily picture ourselves there, it may be more of a stretch to picture ourselves in an actual blood bank, with our honey, looking at bags of blood.  Taken separately, with attempts to apply logic or full understanding, the pieces of this song’s story stick together to resemble something rather dream-like:  the kind of dream where your brain coaxes all of the scenes, fears, hopes and memories tucked away in the catacombs and meshes them into something rather late-Picasso.

A painting you, the creator, could look at and discern the elements and meanings, but would leave a stranger viewing the same work only to guess.  And it’s fun to guess.  A distinctive about this track in particular is the confidence belongs to the guy for once.  Looking at her, he discerns things about her and himself and their future: “what’s that noise up the stairs babe?  Is that Christmas morning creaks?” alludes in a joyful, hopeful way to a future with children.  He’s thinking happy thoughts for once!  But, the song ends pensively and unresolved, leading us into the track ‘Beach Baby’ which has nothing to do with a child, and everything to do with a man’s perspective of a breakup, right down to anger at the girl, knowledge of her propensity towards brokenness and the remembrance of an, ahem, intimate moment.  Very masculine indeed.  Here we see a return to the quiet, mournful hurt that permeated For Emma.

The track ‘Babys’, with either its unclaimed possessive or misspelled plurality, suggests a man who is perfectly happy with his life but for the first time is on board with the idea of children with the girl, hearkening back to the posed possibility of Christmas morning creaks.  ‘Woods’ takes us down again, in a hypnotic loop of a cathartic nature.

All in all, it seems these songs further illumine For Emma’s story for us.  We continue to see the themes of “death on a sunny snow”, of love lost and dreams dashed.  For me, as the days are now warming and sunlight remains through the evening hours, this album and For Emma with their broken and icy whispers of winter will be shelved.  Right now, the daffodils and tulips are blooming, the season of renewed life approaches and the music just does not fit.  It is inevitable though, for all of us, the cold, gray season of both climate and soul shall return.  And you will be thankful to pull this one off the shelf and find solace in the scenes of heartbreak and longing we all know so well.

listen to the title track, blood bank, here:

ps:  one of my favorite music discovery resources is daytrotter.  they interview quality bands, have them record live tracks and let you listen and download them for free.  you can test drive bon iver here!

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