It's been three years since For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut album that landed Justin Vernon's band Bon Iver on virtually every best-of list for 2008.
Now, Bon Iver has released the follow-up to For Emma, titled Bon Iver. The song titles draw from the names of places — real, imagined or a combination of both, like "Minnesota, WI."
"The songs are meant to come together as this idea that places are times, and people are places, and times... are people?" Vernon says, laughing. "They can all be different and the same at the same time."
"Holocene" is a bar in Portland, Ore., Vernon says. It's also the name of a geological era or epoch.
" 'Once I knew I was not magnificent,' " he says, quoting a line from the song. "Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. I think there's significance in that insignificance."
You won't find straightforward storytelling on Bon Iver. For Emma was famously written at an isolated cabin during a frigid Wisconsin winter, and drew inspiration from Vernon's breakups. But the new album is harder to define.
"[Bon Iver] had a really long birth," Vernon says. "It kind of just continued to form itself over the course of three years."
Vernon says he found it impossible to approach songwriting the way he did with Bon Iver's first record. So, rather than write primarily on the guitar, Vernon picked up the bass, keyboards and drums and experimented more with his voice. He also bulked up his band to nine total members. The resulting sound was unexpected, though the biggest surprise may be Bon Iver's closing track, "Beth/Rest," with its '80s-style electric keyboards and guitar solos.
"When I made it," he says, "I was like, 'I love this song. I really needed to write this song, and I need it to be last on this record.' "
But Vernon says he didn't intend for "Beth/Rest" to be ironic.
"I don't want it to be some '80s throwback song. I want it to be a current, I-get-lost-in-this song," he says. "And I love everything about it."