If you haven’t heard of Bon Iver, you’ve probably been living under a rock. The last twelve months have been some of the most important in the band’s career: front man Justin Vernon was widely recognized both for his musical talent and his strangely aloof Grammy acceptance speech. Bon Iver is back, this time with an iTunes Session which features a Bjork cover along with six other cuts from the band’s 2011 self-titled breakout album.
The songs featured on the iTunes Session are first and foremost thrilling for the sheer power of Vernon’s vocals. When Vernon drops his voice down an octave in “Wash,” the effect is stunning. For all of the noise about his, yes, lovely falsetto, Vernon has a gorgeously resonant alto range. And there are really only two times fans can hear it: live in concert, or on this iTunes Session.
The track selection, however, is a bit of a mystery. It draws only from Bon Iver, and completely neglects songs from the excellent Blood Bank EP as well as the band’s quietly beautiful debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. As a result, there are some holes in this release: we get no “Skinny Love,” no “Wolves (Act I and II)”, and no “Blood Bank.” Even some of the stronger Bon Iver cuts get slighted—“Calgary” isn’t on the iTunes Session, and neither is “Perth.”
Still, it’s hard to sniff at a collection of unplugged Bon Iver tracks. “Beth/Rest” is in fine form, and is certainly the strongest on the iTunes Session as a whole. “Holocene” is reproduced in all of its ambling glory, and “Hinnom, TX” is refreshingly pared down. The session closes with a cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It,” which the band played periodically during their 2011 tour. It’s a fine cover, but iTunes Session places the band’s notorious closer, “Beth/Rest,” at the front of the release, and as a result, the whole album feels off-balance.
Ultimately, the iTunes Session manages to recreate some of the thrill of seeing Bon Iver live: listeners can hear Justin Vernon’s unfettered vocals rising to the top of every song’s mix as well as the technical skill and precision of his band’s musicians. But if you have $50, forget this release and buy a ticket to see them play live. The iTunes Session is really only suitable for superfans and those who live outside the reaches of Bon Iver’s 2012 tour.
Bon Iver will play at Radio City Music Hall on September 19, 20, 21 and 22.