Bon Iver: A Career in 10 Songs

With a new album, his third overall, on the way in just under a month, Bon Iver is finally, thankfully, well and truly back. The music collective helmed by the enigmatic and multitalented Justin Vernon, Bon Iver have been largely inactive since 2011’s self-titled sophomore LP. There were doubts as to whether Vernon would ever release more music under the moniker.

His own curated festival in Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires saw their return to the stage last year, where audiences were given a tantalising taste of new music, Bon Iver playing two brand new (as yet unidentified) songs and blowing the crowd away. With an 11th hour announcement before their set at this year’s Eaux Claires that they would be debuting their new album 22, A Million live and in its entirety, fans went into near meltdown.

A release date has been announced for September 30th as well as three new singles that have come thus far in the ambitious and atmospheric 33 “God”, the emotional swell of 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, a track that seems to demonstrate that past collaborator Kanye West, who said he loved Bon Iver “like Kanye loves Kanye”, has had his influence rub off on Vernon, the dark and minimalistic production an allusion to the direction of Yeezus.

Vernon also held a press conference over the weekend where he discussed the album at length with journalists, revealing his current headspace, his inspirations and collaborations behind the new record and how he created some of the sounds you will hear.

Bon Iver has helped to soundtrack the lives of an entire generation, many through the same kind of heartbreak and pain that first drove Vernon into that Wisconsin cabin to record, uplifting them along the way.

To help these same Bon Iver fans cross the seemingly eternal chasm of time between now and September 30th, we’ve put together a list of ten, perhaps not the highly subjective best Bon Iver songs, but certainly personal favourites and high points from his wonderful career so far.

10. Woods

Few artists have managed to take the often-maligned studio technique of autotuning and put it to such evocative use as Bon Iver and there is no better example of this than Woods. Barren of instrumentation or production, Woods is simply a stunning collection of different voices, twisted and manipulated and warped to create a soundscape resembling a gnarled winter forest and one that will give you utter chills. It seems to tell the story of the creation of For Emma, Forever Ago, as Vernon croons about being “up in the woods/I’m down on my mind/I’m building a still/to slow down the time.”

A track so good that it caught the attention of the aforementioned Kanye West, who sampled it to stunning effect in the penultimate track from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Lost In The World. Woods was the curtain call on Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, a bridging point between For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver and provided a taste of the direction his sound would take on the latter. It will take your breath away to this very day.

9. Re: Stacks

The final track on his breathtaking debut, Re: Stacks was another masterful example of imagery from Bon Iver. Using gambling terminology to describe a relationship, one that self-destructed and left little but remorse like a degenerate gambler feels after he’s tossed away his money, his “stacks” in a drunken haze. More though it felt like Vernon opening the door to the cabin he confined himself in for three months writing and recording For Emma, stepping across the threshold and feeling free of burden again.

With his gorgeous falsetto never gentler, Vernon strums a simple acoustic guitar to close the curtain on one of the finest albums of the last 20 years, each staccato syllable of the chorus of “on your back with your racks as he stacks your load/in the back with the racks and he stacks your load/in the back with the racks and you’re unstacking your load” feels like a step out the door and forward, completely purged of guilt and self-doubt and all of the other emotions Vernon laid down to record on For Emma.

8. I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick Of Time

While not an original Bon Iver song, I Can’t Make You Love Me originally existing as a Bonnie Raitt power ballad from 1991, the lamentation and eventual acceptance of an impending break-up. Recorded during a studio session and never commercially released, Vernon strips away all the production and takes a wholly organic approach to the song. With just himself and a grand piano, he accomplishes that rare musical feat of making a cover better than the original.

His falsetto may be burdened with heartache but it doesn’t clip its wings, the lightness of his soaring voice contrasting gorgeously with the mournful piano chords laid underneath. The master stroke is when he flips the song on its head and gives it a happy ending, blending it seamlessly with another Bonnie Raitt song in Nick Of Time, a more positive tune about finding love right when you need it.

Just like that, Bon Iver turned a saccharine love ballad into an honest tear-jerker. More on his near inherent ability to do that later.

7. Creature Fear/Team

Creature Fear from For Emma starts off innocuously enough, a stilted and jaunty folk song with a tottering acoustic guitar but then evolves into so much more. A waterfall of choral vocals, a rare instance of electric guitar, bass and simple bashing percussion on an album largely bereft of them and Vernon’s voice rising to an emotion-soaked high over the chorus before falling away once more into the same laidback folk vibe, only to rise again and lead effortlessly into its steady instrumental addendum in Team.

Creature Fear examines the crossroads of a relationship, almost fearful of the future, Team lets that sentiment wash over the listener, each crashing drum beat pushing them down the same uncertain road Vernon is contemplating. As Vernon softly whistles out the sprawling tune, another high point and another song that stands on its own, you get the sense that the tracks making up For Emma are nine separate pillars, each bearing its own load in holding up not just an album but a personal journey.

6. The Wolves (Act I and II)

A track that perfectly encapsulates not just the isolation of the Wisconsin cabin it was recorded in but the threat presented by the metaphorical ‘wild wolves’ encircling it. The opening line ‘some day my pain will mark you’ is laced heavily with post-breakup bitterness, the silences punctuating the song confronting to the point of painful. It’s a claustrophobic track, full of dusty creaks and jarring noises and one of Bon Iver’s first experimentations with autotune, an effect that Vernon somehow manipulated to infuse his vocals with even more emotion where other artists have dulled the impact of theirs with it.

The roaring crescendo of noise that plays The Wolves out as Vernon howls pleading to let go of ‘what might have been lost’ is an emotional hurricane and one of the most desperate and hopeless points on For Emma.

5. Holocene

The Holocene period in Earth’s history coincided with the Mesolithic age in history, where primitive humans moved from exclusively hunting to the first signs of domestication. Of humanity. The second single from Bon Iver’s second studio effort, Holocene, while it might have been principally named after a bar in Portland, nonetheless really feels like Vernon has found his own humanity after steadily trying to build it back up in For Emma. The chorus hook of “I can see for miles, miles, miles” feels ever appropriate, having left his perch behind the famous frosted cabin window that makes up the album cover of For Emma and stepping into the wide world anew, a place Vernon acknowledges here that he is but a small part of.

Bon Iver’s most commercial effort by far, Holocene is soft and twinkling and gentle with seemingly deliberate pop infectiousness and none of the undercurrent of heartbreak that permeated even the most upbeat efforts of For Emma. It went over huge with critics, perhaps unjustifiably losing out for song of the year to Adele’s Rolling In The Deep at the 2011 Grammys, though Bon Iver would still scoop up gongs for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album.

Most importantly though, Holocene felt like an awakening and sweet redemption for Vernon.

4. Flume

Not just dealing with abject heartbreak in For Emma, Justin Vernon was wretched with mononucleosis hepatitis alone in that cabin. Album opener Flume is him introducing Bon Iver positively weak with sickness. The fragility and abandonment and almost utter defeat in his voice as he softly croons “I am my mother’s only one” is uncomfortably palpable.

Flume was a musically uncomplicated introduction, anchored by ambling folk chords juxtaposed with jarring intermissions of metallic noise, layered vocals across the mournful chorus and the creaks and groans of the cabin almost audible. Bon Iver ensured the listener would be hooked beyond retrieval from the very moment For Emma opened, a grip that hasn’t loosened since.

3. Beth/Rest

There are some Bon Iver fans who look upon Beth/Rest with slight distaste. The power ballad elements like the melodramatic piano, the cheesy synths and the overblown guitar solo that sound like outtakes from a Phil Collins album are enough to put people off, so markedly different was the sound from Bon Iver’s stark breakout debut. Look beyond the simple sonic aesthetics and truly appreciate what Vernon has accomplished here though, managing to take musical elements that are usually maligned as vacuous and infusing them with so much emotion and raw feeling where the singer-songwriters from the 80s he channels here were totally devoid of it.

His voice positively soars across the track, visiting so many peaks and valleys along the way. Known for his experimentation with phrasing and words, his ability to take lexicon from a bygone era and revive it with meaning again has never been more on display in his stream of consciousness lyrics. Lines like “the hawser rolls, the vessel’s whole and Christ, it’s thin” and “all the news at the door, all the revelry, well its hocked inside of everything you said to me” are simultaneously meaningless yet devastating, the climactic line before the guitar solo rips in “I ain’t living in the dark no more, it’s not a promise, I’m just gonna call it” is defiantly heartbroken.

The true meaning behind Vernon’s lyrics is almost mythical at times. The man himself has never been one to delve too deeply into any particular line in a song or attribute more than just the vaguest of meanings and messages to any of his music. Beth/Rest manages to be meaningless yet meaningful all at once. That Bon Iver can entwine such profound lyricism around such overblown production and make it work this well is an astounding credit to Vernon’s musicianship.

2. Blindsided

Blindsided is perhaps one of Bon Iver’s finest uses of imagery. The song, a barren and wintery soundscape of just a repetitive acoustic bass and a muffled kick pedal slowly building to a gorgeous chorus with scene-conjuring lyrics as Vernon sings about crouching “like a crow/contrasting the snow” and “I’m crippled and slow/For the agony I’d rather know”. Vernon told the crowd at 2015’s Eaux Claires that he wrote this song about an attempt to break into the Wisconsin and Minnesota Credit Union building but the scene woven in the song could have been the discovery of a cheating partner, the lyrics are that malleable.

It’s difficult not to get shivers at multiple points throughout Blindsided, Vernon’s falsetto blowing in like a gust of winter air over the choruses, falling away to a baritonal whisper over the verses. The song’s slow build makes the eventual payoff utterly spinetingling, yet another example on For Emma where Bon Iver are able to build a swell of emotion over several minutes and bring it crashing down upon the listener a tidal wave.

Blindsided is one of the most delicate points on For Emma, and stands as one of Vernon’s best lyrical efforts of his entire career.

1. Skinny Love

Bon Iver’s most famous song to date and the one that resonates the deepest is Skinny Love, an open letter to a lost love for all intents and purposes, its emotional delivery having the impact of a tonne of bricks. No relationship is ever easy and quite often they become one-sided, one party needing support and patience and love and the other unwilling or unable to give it and Skinny Love captures that sadness perfectly.

Catchy, bouncing chord progression and simple kick drum and handclap percussion, that same idiosyncratic Bon Iver build between chorus and verse, the cracks and strain in Vernon’s voice as he pleads for this skinny form of love to “just last the year”, as he tells his love “to wreck it all/cut out all the ropes and let me fall”. It’s soul-shattering upon first listen and the experience rarely dulls.

Skinny Love captures the spirit of For Emma so perfectly, Vernon laying his soul bare with nothing but raw honesty and unyielding emotion and it still stands as one of the greatest songs of the last decade.

Regardless of what 22, A Million brings, the next chapter in the Bon Iver story is one we have been waiting on for what seems like an eternity. After so much doubt as to whether it would even happen, we’re just excited to see Bon Iver making music again and hope it’s not their last hurrah.

22, A Million is out September 30th via Jagjaguwar.

Image: The Awesome Cave