The best album of our halfway-over year proves that rock-and-roll isn’t dead — it’s only sleeping. And dreaming. Vividly.
It’s the sophomore effort from Justin Vernon, an affable 30-year-old Wisconsinite who records as Bon Iver and looks like he should be smiling on a roll of paper towels in aisle three.
His stunning debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” arrived in 2008, wrapped in a wintry, woodsy mythology: The folky ruminations on a fresh heartbreak, sung in a mysterious falsetto yawn, were recorded in Vernon’s family hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin during the hoariest days of winter.
His music’s intimacy earned him plenty of praise and, eventually, the patronage of Kanye West, who recruited Vernon to sing on his 2010 masterstroke, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Now Vernon has a masterstroke to call his own. Where “For Emma” came from some disenchanted forest, his new, self-titled “Bon Iver” emerges from a feverish trance. It’s amorphous and triumphant — a haze of acoustic guitars, airy synthesizers and tumbling drums floating beneath Vernon’s hallucinogenic yowl, like two stratus clouds overlapping in a dream.
The album opens with “Perth,” its martial percussion rat-a-tatting from some distant battlefield. Spindly guitars, regal horns and Vernon’s multi-tracked voice surge and recede, slipping in and out of focus.
It’s often impossible to make out the lyrics, and the album’s only easily discernible phrases come as declarations of fortitude. “Never gonna break, never gonna break,” Vernon vows over the delicate guitars of “Minnesota, WI.” On the shimmering “Holocene,” he finds a moment of clarity: “I could see for miles, miles, miles.”
The rest of the album seems to be sung in some imaginary language that we will pretend to know but never will. All the while, Vernon matches his blurry syllables with ravishing melodies, which dare us to croon along. Can you make sense of these syllables? he seems to be asking us. Can you squeeze your throat into frequencies this high?
And so we ask: Why do you sing in that clumsy, wonderful falsetto? To transcend gender? To emulate R&B? To get closer to God? With Vernon’s enigmatic voice providing a nucleus for each song, “Bon Iver” is an album of questions, not answers.
The song titles are our only signposts — “Michicant,” “Hinnom, TX,” “Wash.,” “Calgary,” “Lisbon, OH” — and you’ll find only three of those on Google Maps. As Vernon jaunts between reality and imagination, the parallel odyssey we witness is a songwriter’s transition from vulnerability to confidence.
His poise is apparent on the suite closer, “Beth/Rest,” which sounds like an ’80s prom theme paled by memory. Its vintage synthesizers have a queasy, soft-rock sheen, but the VH1 associations quickly succumb to Vernon’s unimpeachable sense of melody. (“There’s not enough Hornsby in my scene,” Vernon recently told late-night talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, citing the song’s Bruce Hornsby-ish keyboard timbres.)
Because of his man-with-guitar image and those hay bales of hair and beard, Vernon is often associated with other earnest, acoustic-minded indie-rock groups. But “Bon Iver” makes those associations moot. These evaporating rock songs have much more in common with recent albums from R&B shape-shifters Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Sade.
It’s the sound of pop music trying to figure out what it must become in a new century, gently turning itself inside out, showing off its gorgeous guts.
Like our most beautiful dreams, it makes us pay closer attention to life.
Recommended tracks: “Calgary,” “Holocene,” “Beth/Rest”