Two crucial factors skew my critical eye when writing on Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago is my favorite album in recent memory and I really want to like everything Justin Vernon stamps his name on. After exorbitant listens, I find For Emma as compelling as my first and after reading countless interviews, I find Vernon, more and more, a deserving artist. So, as with other Bon Iver fans, the pertinent question asked of Blood Bank, would it convey the similar winter solitude to which we grew accustomed, or the fuller sound of Bon Iver’s live band? The answer is probably neither; yet, Blood Bank feels quintessentially like a Bon Iver record in its formula and sonic identity.
The title track, supposedly written during his well-documented retreat, is darkly melodic and structurally similar to tracks like “Lump Sum” as it is pushes along, chorus-less, anchored on a consistent arpeggio. Lyrics of uncertainty and frustration end with Vernon humming “I know it well” and segue into “Beach Baby”, which trots along rather blandly. Vernon’s token falsetto sings quietly over a continuous guitar line, singing to an ex-lover. These two songs compile the first half of the E.P. and certainly sound like b-sides. They are well-kempt but don’t capture the evocations of For Emma. It’s the album’s second half that introduces a new Bon Iver. “Babys”, in particular, showcases a fresh direction. If we remained in a cold Wisconsin cabin during the E.P.’s first half; then the bright, staccato insistences of “Babys” allow us to exit. “Summer comes,” Vernon sings proudly, “to multiply!” It all makes sense: snow melts, broken hearts mend, anxieties heal when summer arrives. The triumphant “Babys” brings us to the Auto-Tune laden “Woods”. Undoubtedly, the closer will incite loud detractors arguing, perhaps reasonably, that Bon Iver’s charm lies in his organic sensibilities, not Pro Tools manipulation. Nor does it help that the entire song repeats the same four lines. Yet, “Woods” captures a certain exorcism in its digitally-amplified reiteration.
Once again, Vernon’s lyricism toys with the oblique and the outspoken. It’s difficult to discern specific meaning behind songs like “Blood Bank”, but “Babys” and “Woods” borderline on the confessional. “My woman and I know what we’re for,” Vernon says delicately until exclaiming, “to multiply!” And “Woods” is a synopsis of For Emma: “I’m up in the woods/ I’m down on my mind.”
Blood Bank does not attempt to duplicate For Emma, nor should it. The latter achieved an inimitable sound and personality, and Blood Bank serves as a strong transitional E.P. Most of all, it proves that Vernon and his belatedly formed band are not merely for a winter niche.