When Bon Iver released the four-track Blood Bank EP in early 2009, the extended play as a format didn’t carry much artistic weight. EPs had been saddled with a not-entirely-unfair reputation as inessential, but artists got defensive about EPs in the 2010s—they called them “mini-albums,” they lashed out at Spotify for lumping them in with singles, they announced them as “an EP in length, but well beyond that in scope”—and used these smaller canvases to paint some of the best projects of their careers: Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom, TNGHT’s TNGHT, James Blake’s 2010 trilogy. It’d be an almighty stretch to say that none of these EPs would have been made without Blood Bankreissued and expanded on vibrant red vinyl to commemorate its 10th anniversary—but Blood Bank ultimately reminded musicians, listeners and critics alike how meaningful the humble EP could be when it was taken seriously.

In retrospect, Blood Bank marks the end of Bon Iver 1.0—the phase where the project was just Justin Vernon, the bearded and brokenhearted guy who recorded music in a cabin in the woods. It arrived less than a year after Jagjaguwar reissued Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, and included songs that had been written during the recording of that album. And yet, none of the four songs on Blood Bank, even if they had been recorded in that same cabin in the woods, would have really fit on For Emma. That album functions as a nine-song portal into one bearded man’s heartbreak; the songs collected on Blood Bank feel less like deleted scenes than they do their own short films.

The title track remains one of Vernon’s 10 best compositions, as well as one of his most accessible. In contrast to the elemental, impressionistic poetry of For Emma’s songs, “Blood Bank” is a love song, almost disarming in its warmth and clarity, from its inceptive meeting in a blood bank to getting snowbound in a car to waking up together on Christmas morning. “That secret that you know/ That you don’t know how to tell/ It fucks with your honor/ And it teases your head,” Vernon sings the first time through the chorus; the second time, the yous become wes, and the second couplet becomes “I’m in love with your honor/ I’m in love with your cheeks.”

Of the four, “Beach Baby” is the track that most closely resembles For Emma, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s about a ruined relationship. “Don’t you lock when you’re fleeing/ I’d like not to hear keys,” Vernon heartbreakingly coos before detailing a tryst on a beach, his acoustic strumming giving way to what sounds like the saddest lap steel guitar ever laid to tape. Fragments of the beach scene return on the similarly named “Babys,” the EP’s lone misfire and one of only a handful of duds in the Bon Iver discography—that frantic, plinking piano riff gets annoying fast, and there’s little else in the song’s five-minute runtime that you won’t already hear in the first two minutes.

“Woods,” on the other hand, does repetition right. The song consists of a single lyric—“I’m up in the woods/ I’m down on my mind/ I’m building a still/ To slow down the time”—sung over and over again by Vernon, who adds a new layer to his Auto-Tuned vocals with every pass until he’s literally howling and scatting along with himself in a choir. The use of Auto-Tune was fairly widespread in popular music in the late 2000s—T-Pain used it so much that it was dubbed the “T-Pain effect,” and it was essential to Kanye West’s seminal 808s & Heartbreak, which was released just two months before Blood Bank—but Vernon took it to what was arguably its furthest extent yet with “Woods.”

Speaking of West, shortly after Blood Bank’s release, Vernon was pulled into an arc that would have seemed unthinkable back in that cabin in the woods. West was so fascinated by “Woods” that he not only sampled the song on his own “Lost in the World,” but he invited Vernon to join him in the studio alongside Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross for the recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Vernon would team with West again, and go on to become a well-connected collaborator in the 2010s, working with the likes of James Blake and the National’s Aaron Dessner, as well as rappers such as Vince Staples and Eminem. And, of course, Bon Iver would change dramatically over the decade, morphing from a solo acoustic project into a musical collective working on the experimental fringes of indie folk.

That’s the Bon Iver that we hear on the four live tracks that accompany this Blood Bank reissue—a bigger, burlier band that can pack venues with “Globe” and “Apollo” in their names. (All four live tracks were recorded at different shows in 2018.) While none of these performances recapture the intimacy of the original studio recordings, the best of them add subtle splashes of color and detail that don’t distract from the bare-bones beauty of the songs themselves: a piano and a horn section that recalls the pseudo-title track of For Emma on “Beach Baby,” a softer approach to “Babys” that includes woodwinds and percussion, a version of “Woods” that’s even more distorted and anguished. It all serves as a reminder of how far Justin Vernon has come, and how much further Bon Iver has yet to go.

Summary
Expanded reissue illustrates how far the band has come since its origins.
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SHORT AND SANGUINE
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