Where To Start With... Bon Iver
In 2012, when Justin Vernon announced that he was walking away from the band he'd created a little over four years earlier, it looked as though we may have seen the last of Bon Iver. At the time, Vernon told Rolling Stone of his decision: “I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it... There's so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it.”
It might seem odd for an artist to walk away from his pet project at the height of its success, but then Vernon has never been one to court fame. After some early forays into music in the late 1990s and early 2000s – first with the band Mount Vernon, then as a solo artist – Vernon began to find moderate success with DeYarmond Edison (taking their moniker from Vernon's middle names), releasing an eponymous debut in 2004 and a follow-up, Silent Signs, in 2005. But after relocating from his native Wisconsin to North Carolina with the band, things began to deteriorate, both in terms of his relationship with the other band members and his health. Differences in musical direction began to emerge between Vernon and his bandmates, Megafaun's Phil & Brad Cook and Field Report's Chris Porterfield, but it was the combination of these tensions and Vernon's diagnosis with a form of mononucleosis that led to the group's eventual break-up.
Vernon became severely ill when the disease caused a liver infection and, reasoning that he needed to be alone to recuperate, returned to Wisconsin and moved into an isolated hunting cabin owned by his father, about an hour's drive north of his hometown of Eau Claire. Frustrated with his experiences over the previous couple of years, Vernon hadn't intended the cabin to become a songwriting retreat, but armed with some basic recording equipment and old instruments he'd used while helping The Rosebuds record their album Night of the Furies, he began slowly piecing together the songs and recordings that would become Bon Iver's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded over three months in near-total isolation during a bitter Wisconsin winter, the album is filled with achingly beautiful songs, packed with layers of falsetto vocals and lovelorn lyrics of loss and mediocrity.
The album would become a slow-burning success that far surpassed any expectations Vernon had, finding itself on countless 'best of' lists at the end of 2008. Eventually he realised that he'd need a band if he was going to tour the album and the assembled cast of musicians also helped him record the album's follow-up, Bon Iver, changing and adding depth to Vernon's songs and ultimately winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2011.
Then, after a tour to support the album, he walked away. Much like his music, there has always been a delicate quality to Vernon he revealed in a recent interview with The Guardian that the pressures of unexpected success had began to result in panic attacks. For a long time, it seemed his hiatus from music might be permanent, but then he slowly began to return to action. In the four years that have passed since Bon Iver, Vernon has been busy working on various projects, one of which being the Eaux Claire music festival in his hometown, which he created and which also became the site of his first live show in over two years at the end of 2014. The other notable venture was a somewhat unlikely series of collaborations with Kanye West.
It was the latter that helped him rediscover the impetus to make music again, and while the band's new album 20, A Million is by no means Bon Iver's hip-hop record, it does represent a stylistic change from the first two albums and there are points where Kanye's influence can be heard. Firstly there's the track names, each a jumble of lower and uppercase letters, numbers and random symbols. The single '33 ”God”' is a good example; all the core elements you'd expect are still there, including Vernon's trademark layered falsetto vocals and barely tangible lyrics, but there's much more experimentation on the production side of things, including digitally manipulated vocals and stuttering beats scattered here and there.
'10 dEAThbREasT' is an even more extreme example, the layers of vocals screened by a series of heavily mangled drums and processed percussion, augmented by flashes of strings and woodwinds, while '22 (OVER S∞∞N)' is like a fragmented choir fed through a long chain of digital processors.
In short, this is something quite different from the last two albums, but don't let that put you off. This an adventurous reimagining of Bon Iver's sound that retains all the things that made their first two albums great while still pushing the boundaries. Some fans might experience a sense of shock at first, but bear with it – you'll soon grow to love it like you did the others.
You can find a video for '33 “God”' below, beneath that we've picked five of Bon Iver's finest moments to date as a guide for those unfamiliar with their music...
One of the cuts from For Emma, Forever Ago, 'Skinny Love' is one of the standout tracks from Bon Iver's debut and it's a perfect example of the lo-fi, delicately delivered songs that make up that first record. It's been covered since by a range of artists since, including Ed Sheeran, who likes to wheel it out at his live shows from time to time.
The closing salvo from Bon Iver's debut LP is one of the real gems on the record and perhaps sums up Vernon's view of his time up in the cabin in Wisconsin better than any other. He has said that he felt no catharsis about finishing the album and that the whole cabin episode has tended to be romanticised by others, but his own experience is perfectly summarised in the closing verse of this beautiful acoustic number:
“This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation / It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away”.
Not featured on either of Bon Iver's previous albums but instead the title track of an EP released in the intervening years between them, 'Blood Bank' hints at the fuller sound that would characterise the second record and features a more linear narrative than some of the lyrics on For Emma, Forever Ago. As well as the fact it's one of our favourite Bon Iver tracks, we've included it on the basis that it's a window into the mind of an artist in flux, between one thing and the next. Well worth a listen for those who only have the albums in their collection.
Along with 'Skinny Love', this cut from Bon Iver is probably one of the band's best-known songs, thanks in part to its inclusion on a number of film soundtracks, including Zack Braff's Wish I Was Here and Cameron Crowe's We Bought A Zoo. On 'Holocene', the gentle, jangling guitars present on the first album benefit from better recordings, although the song retains the same quietly mesmerising power as those on Bon Iver's debut.
Our final pick is another cut from the band's second album and another of our favourites, again featuring layers of quietly propulsive guitars, this time of the electric variety, leading the listener into a rousing folk song with hints of country-style pedal steel guitars and layers of warm, orchestral brass and strings. It's one of the more polished sounding things Bon Iver have done, but loses none of its charm as a result.