Justin Vernon, formerly of the Raleigh band DeYarmond Edison, scored a surprise indie hit last year with For Emma, Forever Ago, his debut solo album as Bon Iver. Recorded in a Wisconsin cabin as Vernon battled two breakups and mononucleosis, For Emma collected nine haunted folk songs, alternately recalling Devendra Banhart's spectral early work and TV on the Radio calling the heartland home.
For the EP entitled Blood Bank, he has made some changes: The live band Vernon recruited to perform For Emma's layered tracks, Mike Noyce and Sean Carey, are now official, recording members. This explains, in part, how Vernon manages to get more diversity into a four-track EP than he did on the whole of Emma. All four songs have a different style, from an a cappella track made with a vocoder to a title track that recalls his earlier work in DeYarmond Edison.
If Vernon's sound has progressed, what hasn't changed is his elegiac mood, as he's still stuck on that forever-ago time. His voice projects through the title track in palpably aching waves, caressing those moments that feel nostalgic even as you live them: "Then the snow started falling/ We were stuck out in your car/ You were rubbing both my hands/ Chewing on a candy bar." He posits these moments as sad not just in hindsight, but while they happen, when time is already bearing them away: "Ain't it just like the present/ to be showing up like this?" If one of those CW Network teen dramas doesn't nab "Blood Bank" for a tender break-up scene, someone must be seriously asleep at the wheel over there.
If "Blood Bank" is Vernon's most unapologetically mainstream song yet, "Babys" is his most experimental, his voice feline amid a glowing flurry of staccato piano keys. And "Woods" is a robotic hymn reminiscent of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek," with multi-tracked vocals harmonizing in vocoder splendor, scoring big with the craze just when you thought you were sick of it. Only the meandering "Beach Baby," which seems like a second-rate Emma holdover, doesn't meaningfully expand Vernon's range as a songwriter.
Blood Bank is available Jan. 20.