Bon Iver reappeared before us in 2011 and some transformations were obvious immediately. Justin Vernon’s 2007 debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” was a result of his own exile to the woods of Wisconsin, where he would record the album, and in turn charm audiences everywhere thanks to truly terrific songwriting and a hermit’s tale that made the rest of us dream a little about our own urges for self-imposed isolation and introspection.

The 2011 self-titled release is more ambitious, to state the obvious, opening doors to a sound far more vast than what was offered on the debut record; Bon Iver is now more a band than a collection of one man’s thoughts. You may choose to see this as a good thing or a bad thing, I prefer seeing it as a natural phenomenon of artistic evolution. It is certain that some elements may have been lost in the process, but others have been gained, and the end result is exquisite. “Bon Iver” is an exceptional record, confirmed by (or despite, depending on who’s side you’re on) the recent Grammy nominations. Bon Iver is another example of the Grammys at least trying to get it right and accepting the, albeit tiny, minority listening to actual music as an actual demographic. Maybe the 2011 Arcade Fire win really was a significant sign of some change to come: maybe that moment where Win Butler put down his award on his amplifier and the band played on to close the show would truly reveal itself to be a pivotal point in the intransigent history of mainstream music. Maybe.

Several of the album’s song titles are named after cities, as if to represent stops along the road between the woods of Wisconsin and somewhere else, somewhere where Bon Iver’s song craft would be brought to some deeper meaning. The song “Calgary” perfectly illustrates where Bon Iver’s music stands in 2011: the band name is derived from the French “bon hiver”, meaning good winter, and for those of you that have never been to Calgary, I’m sure you can picture it as the cold, cold place that it is, on the Western end of the Canadian prairies. In the coldest months of winter however, warm winds known as Chinooks come blowing through Alberta. It is not uncommon for a strong Chinook to make a foot of snow vanish almost entirely in one day, while rising temperatures by 40 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit).  “Calgary” doesn’t just display warmth; it displays it in contrast to something very cold. In 2011, Bon Iver are still making earnest music in a place that’s often far too cold, where their mere presence is making everything a touch warmer, and giving even the toughest of cynics a reason to remain hopeful.

Nick Backovic