Let’s first discuss the letter “b” to get that whole issue out of the way. Bon Iver (stage name of Justin Vernon) offers four songs on “Blood Bank,” his most recent EP: “Blood Bank,” “Beach Baby,” “Babys” [sic] and … “Woods.” I won’t venture into the letter’s symbolic potential, but the alliteration hints at a coherence that isn’t quite there. As its nomenclature implies, “Woods” is different (re: Auto-Tune), but the remaining songs only share in their here-and-there nods to the sensibility Bon Iver established in his debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago.”
At the core of that sensibility is a calibrated vagueness; though “For Emma” is ostensibly a break-up record, it avoids the self-indulgence that plagues the breakup mini-genre. Instead of being a record about the end of a relationship (that is, a cathartic work), with the requisite accounts of sleepless nights, humiliating gestures borne of desperation and the gradual transition from love to hate to indifference, Vernon’s debut is a recuperative soundtrack. Not merely therapeutic but emotionally instructive: His lyrics are inscrutable enough to fit just about any situation of contemplation or transition, and his delicate arrangements — spare guitar and piano, carefully-layered falsetto, occasional bits of digital embellishment — fall within a specific emotional frequency. You feel that the place he’s in, while perhaps not a sun-drenched swath of tropicalia, would be an alright place for you to be. For this reason, in the absence of romantic misfortune, it’s a suitable soundtrack for staring out plane, train or automobile windows.
“Blood Bank” is still very much tuned in to Emma’s emotional frequency, but to extend the metaphor beyond its advisable limit, it’s tough to figure out where he’s broadcasting from.
For better or worse, the most exact answer seems to be “between albums.”
The title track was a product of the “For Emma” sessions, and while it makes intuitive sense that it was dropped, it’s tough to pin down exactly why it was excluded from that album. Perhaps it’s a pacing issue: The song is defined by an unpredictable advance and retreat from the concrete images of the first few verses (“You were rubbing both my hands / Chewing on a candy bar”), to the vagueness of the chorus and outro (“And I know it well”). Those last words, repeated in Vernon’s signature falsetto, accumulate meanings until they mean nothing at all.
The tracks that follow, though all cut specifically for “Blood Bank,” fail to settle on a particular emotional locale. “Beach Baby” is the work’s one truly gorgeous track — 30 seconds of spare acoustic chord progression; a few images of separation rendered in a more-wearied-than-usual falsetto; and then a final 50 seconds of lachrymose surf guitar, hearkening back to the touchstone line: “Once a time put a tongue in your ear on the beach.” There’s no chorus, no defining hook; it can hardly even be called minimalism, just a pitch-perfect association of tones, nouns and verbs.
And while I hope, for Vernon’s sake, that his career won’t be built only on the wreckage of failed relationship after failed relationship, the tonal alternatives he explores in the last two songs hold no promise. The jittery energy of “Babys” doesn’t serve it well: Jangly piano builds, recedes, builds, recedes, framing his even-more-inscrutable-than-usual lyrics. “Summer comes to multiply?” “I’m the carnival of peace?” It all makes me quite nervous. And “Woods” — his overblown flirtation with Auto-Tune — falls short of the most basic requirements of a song overtly constructed from software: a guilty rush of pleasure, a twitch in the toe. Let’s hope he and Kanye get it out of their systems soon.
Let the guy wander a bit, meet a girl, fall in love. The outcome won’t matter — we know what he can do with pain, perhaps he’ll show us what love’s like.