The Evolution of Bon Iver

by Philip Damico  /  @philipsdamico

this article is also available as a video essay.

The music of Bon Iver will never escape its mythology. That iconic tale of a heartbroken Justin Vernon retreating to the wilderness of Wisconsin and returning with one of the great works of our time like some shadowy, promethean figure unlocking indie rock’s full potential. Regardless of what you have to say about his fragile, infamous origins, there is no question about Bon Iver’s place in our culture as a true master of time and space. With each release we see more of Justin Vernon’s connections to the places he’s been and things he’s done. Today I want to examine how he masterfully weaves experiences into his music and the personal journey displayed across his three albums.

I am honestly surprised at the idea that there’s a person who’s familiar with Bon Iver’s music but not his origins. The name itself is synonymous with the tale behind it in a way matched few other times throughout the history of music. That tale of a young man down on his luck isolating himself and redefining contemporary music when he returned almost harkens back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descending from his cave after 10 years, bearing gifts of enlightenment and progress. The story has been repeated almost more than any other of its kind. It has even eclipsed that of some works that occupy a gargantuan space in the western musical canon. Could you tell me why Pink Floyd sat down to create Dark Side of the Moon or what inspired The Beatles to write Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band? Probably not, but I’d bet you’ve heard about the time Justin Vernon holed himself up in a cabin for a while to make some damn good music. I think there are a few reasons why the origins of For Emma, Forever Ago exist inseparable from the album itself. I don’t think it has much to do with the music itself. The album isn’t particularly autobiographical, in fact it’s rather vague compared to other efforts born out of personal struggle.

I believe that For Emma Forever Ago’s legacy exists for one reason. It is such a centerpiece of its genre that each aspect of it shaped the ideals of the culture it created. One of the defining cultural values of the last generation has been a return to nature or more specifically, a rejection of contemporary standards and values. In a time of rapid technological development, there are many people who reject the changes our society is experiencing. For Emma Forever Ago was found and appreciated by a small but steadily growing demographic of sentimental romantics. Like I said, For Emma, Forever Ago was truly a blueprint for the indie scene and its mainstream popularity tells us a lot about what we’ve been feeling for the last decade or so. But this video isn’t about what Bon Iver can tell us about ourselves. It’s about what Bon Iver tells us about himself, and what he is still telling us about himself to this day.

The music of Bon Iver has always placed a heavy emphasis on places and the feelings that we attach to the places we’ve been. We see a unique evolution towards pure emotion in his three albums. It begins with the stripped back, painful For Emma, Forever Ago. For Emma is largely representational art. There are few ambiguities in its 37 minute runtime and it places an emphasis on events rather than places, unlike the rest of Bon Iver’s musical output. This is why I consider this album and the EP Blood Bank somewhat separately from the other two, especially considering that they were composed alone and succeeded by the self titled album, a name scheme generally reserved for the first album in an artist’s discography. But even so, Bon Iver’s early music still holds a certain terrestrial atmosphere, one given to it by its ever-present backstory. It sounds like the place it was recorded. It is so memorable because we know the struggle Justin Vernon had to go through to create it. But in his own words, he doesn’t consider the album’s context important to an understanding of it. In a 2008 interview with The A.V. Club, he said this when asked if For Emma’s backstory is significant: ‘No. I’ll get e-mails from people saying “I listened to this song and it made me feel this about my life,” or whatever. I think the story pulls people into the music; it gives them a place to enter. But I hope people are reacting to the music.’

For Emma, Forever Ago is an iconic album because it embodies the values of a generation. Justin Vernon achieved something completely different than what he set out to do. He did not know that he would become the voice of his culture by isolating himself and redirecting his frustrations into music. In fact, he had no idea that he had even made an album at all. When Vernon left the cabin in early 2007, he thought the recordings he had made while isolated in the woods were demos and had intentions to re-record them later. It was only once he showed them to fellow musician Ivan Howard that he considered releasing them as an album and he did so on July 8th, 2007. Bon Iver was picked up by indie rock label Jagjaguwar soon after thanks to online exposure and local performances. For Emma, Forever Ago is a true indie success story that would go on to define the genre. But it’s only the beginning of Bon Iver’s story.

Bon Iver’s second, self-titled album is by far more realized than For Emma. With each song being named after a place, it embodies Bon Iver’s spirit of gathering influences from locations. While the first album was shaky, the second is steady and full-bodied. It stands on its own and even adds a level of abstraction that continues to increase with each addition to the Bon Iver catalog. And I think it’s important that Justin Vernon chose to make the second album self-titled. For Emma lacks many qualities held by the two albums that came after it. It’s sparse and fragile while the other two are relaxed, almost memoir-like looks into Vernon’s mind. But much like its predecessor, the album was born of the events that preceded it. Now what exactly was Justin Vernon up to in the 4 years between For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver? For Emma’s touring cycle lasted for two years and right after that, Vernon was recruited by Kanye West to contribute to more than half the songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a career defining album for West that would go on to win a Grammy for the best rap album of 2010. The whirlwind of success put Vernon in a different headspace than he was in while writing his debut. Critics lauded the sophomore album as “spring rather than winter”, praising the new sound. But that sense of place remained. It was multiple places this time, the locations Vernon had visited both physically and mentally while touring For Emma and writings its follow up. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Vernon said this of each song being named after a place:  

“We have these intense relationships with our places, and that’s loosely what the record is draped over,” he says. But not all of these places are geographical locations so much as sentiments or states of being. “I could go on and on and on about how we use the word ‘place’ in so many different ways,” he explains. “About how somebody might ask you ‘Where you at?’ And they’re not asking where are you sitting, where are you living, they’re asking: ‘How are you doing?'”

Bon Iver’s second album won a Grammy for the Best Alternative Music Album in 2012. The band itself won the Grammy for Best New Artist in the same year. In just 4 years, Justin Vernon had gone from being creatively bankrupt, down on his luck and isolated to touring all around the world. I think the creative success For Emma was met by helped Vernon more fully realize the music that would come after it. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a masterpiece, the purest representation of Vernon’s unique ability to convey that near-incommunicable space where logos meets pathos.

Many artists struggle to follow up after unprecedented success. Vernon is no exception, there were 5 years between 22, A Million and its predecessor. 22, A Million is a result of 5 years of anxiety and confusion. It is a true successor to Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a progression from Vernon’s 2011 declaration of who he was and where he’s been. But it’s clear from the moment the album starts that something’s changed. Instead of opening confidently with purpose and poise like the self-titled album’s opening track Perth, the album begins with the lyric “it might be over soon”. 22, A Million presents itself in a way that invites analysis. I could theorize about its musical experimentation, cryptic lyrics and presentation that borders on ridiculous. But I don’t have to. The simple fact of the matter is that the album is a progression from Bon Iver, Bon Iver in every way. The creative dry spell Vernon found himself in led to a wholly original method of music production. Vernon’s sound engineer, Chris Messina, helped him craft a mixture of custom hardware and software that produces the electronic waves and sighs we hear throughout the album. Acoustic strumming was mostly replaced by distorted humming and electronic gasps. In the words of Trever Hagen, a former bandmate and friend of Vernon’s: “When it came time to make a new album, the music was all exhausted. After Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it felt as if the well had gone dry. Confronting himself also meant facing his loss of direction sense in his music. Through different groups of friends – close, passing, new, old – he began to assemble proto-melodies, vague textures and specific moods from hundreds of hours of recorded improvisations. These were the skeleton keys to unlock not just how 22, A Million could sound, but how it was felt, what it was for, what it was about: the power of human connectivity through music. The poly-fi record formed at the congruence of a bold yet delicate sonic palette. These sounds were the way out from the suffocating enclosure and captivity of anxiety.

“The ten songs of 22, A Million are a collection of sacred moments, love’s torment and salvation, contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence. If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place. ‘I’m taking deeper consideration in another kind of place – our friendships and connections to other people.’ Justin proclaims this shift in ‘33 GOD’: These will just be places to me now. Rather than places we encounter a collection of numerical relationships: binary code, mystic ages, bible chapters, math-logic, repeating infinities.”

22, A Million is pieced together. It lurches electronically forward, progressing without form. This sounds messy but Vernon and crew were so able to remove boundaries between artist and art with their innovative instrumental experimentation that it flows perfectly.

I think that Justin Vernon has completed a cycle. He began his journey unfulfilled, isolated in the woods with no friends. He has effectively ended it with 22, A Million – an album fueled completely by his travels and experiences and friends. Will there be more Bon Iver music? I think it’s possible, but not until Vernon decides there’s something else he wants to say. And what hasn’t he touched on? Bon Iver’s discography is incredibly diverse and Vernon has a ton of side projects that I haven’t been able to touch on. Bon Iver’s music is biographical. The soundtrack to Vernon’s life for the past 10 years, it illustrates his ascent from pain to freedom from that which has plagued him since before he even stepped into in that infamous cabin so many years ago.

 

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