Blood Bank, the slim, new four-song EP from Bon Iver, can be seen as a coda to last year’s excellent and highly acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago. The genesis of that album has already become something of an indie rock legend: Justin Vernon holed up in a cabin in the Northern Wisconsin woods and crafted a record of spare and hushed songs of loss, heartbreak, and perseverance. Blood Bank is not so much a new statement as an affirmation of Emma’s strengths.
The EP’s opening title track is also its best. Starting with gentle acoustic guitar strums and Vernon’s soft singing, this is a tender and starkly beautiful song that is, yes, set at a blood bank. Like a number of Vernon’s best songs, it contains the details, textures and atmosphere of a good, carefully composed short story. When the drums and second guitar enter, they flesh the song out without crowding it. When Vernon sings “Then the snow started falling/ We were stuck out in the car,” he shows that few singers are so well-suited to sing about two people alone in the snow. The following song, “Beach Baby,” is another quiet acoustic song with Vernon singing in his higher and more haunting register, which has an almost hymnal quality to it. An electric guitar subtly joins in towards the end, adding a pretty, almost Hawaiian melody.
The final two songs display more of an experimental bent. “Babys” has a simple and chiming repeated piano figure that builds – suggesting something on the way (babies?) – but never quite gets there. Musically, it’s fuller and busier than the rest of the EP; more dynamic and anticipatory, it nevertheless feels more like a sketch or mood piece than an actual song. Final song “Woods” is like little else Vernon has done before. Sung a cappella and consisting of Vernon repeating the same lines over and over, its lyrics could almost be a fitting epigram for Emma: “I’m up in the woods/ I’m down on my mind/ I’m building a still to slow down the time.” The song’s oddest feature is that Vernon’s slow-moving vocals are processed with what sounds like auto-tune. It may be the only album this year in which a Midwestern indie singer sounds a bit like T-Pain. It’s not exactly catchy, but it is interesting.
Unlike so many singer-songwriters who write about love and solitude, there’s nothing maudlin or self-conscious about Vernon. His music is quiet and restrained, but it’s not fey or twee. There’s an intensity and drive to his songs. They have substance, a pith and marrow usually missing from much of contemporary folk. Vernon strips away excess and returns to the essentials of one person with a voice, some songs, and a guitar. Like Neil Young or Elliott Smith, he can sound lonely or far away, but in a way that is oddly comforting and familiar, as if he’s in the room (or cabin) with the listener. If the lyrics bring to mind writers like Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau, it’s because these writers also found inspiration in the wilderness and unique ways to express that inspiration.