– By James Powers –
The winter of 2006 found young Wisconsinite Justin Vernon in a decidedly bad mood. His longtime band had fizzled out after a failed attempt to put down roots in Raleigh. He was recovering from a particularly painful breakup. He’d blown a bunch of money on online poker. And on top of everything, he had come down with a particularly nasty type of mononucleosis. Bad times all around.
In response to this Vernon did something that, at the time, was probably just self-care or maybe even cowardice. But it would become an almost mythic event in the timeline of indie music history, and turn him into a sort of reluctant hipster Orpheus. Unbeknownst to him, that bad winter would launch him on a trajectory to – among other things – winning a Grammy, collaborating extensively with Kanye West, being parodied on SNL by Justin Timberlake, turning his hometown into a kind of hipster Mecca, and, now, selling out arenas across the nation in support of the fourth LP from his band Bon Iver.
But I think Vernon’s story is more meaningful and complex than just another rags-to-riches showbiz narrative. Over the course of his career, he’s descended into the underworld of millennial angst, almost unintentionally giving a voice to that homesick and heartsick generation; and then, with the recent release of his band’s fourth album, he seems to have emerged from that underworld at least a bit. And, in so doing, he’s given his existentially befuddled peers some hope of doing the same. Or at any rate, he’s given me some such hope; and although this isn’t as timely as it was a couple of weeks ago when Vernon’s new album came out, I still think it’s worth it for me to introduce you to him, if you don’t know him already.
So back to that crappy winter. After the aforementioned quadruple-whammy struck, Vernon headed home to Wisconsin and holed up by himself in his dad’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. He brought with him a bit of the instruments and gear from his days with the band, but not much else. While there he did some hunting, drank a lot of beer, and noodled around with said instruments and his own voice, singing almost entirely in a fragile falsetto out of character for his hoarse natural baritone. He recorded some of this noodling with the vague idea that it might be somehow marketable later, but without any real plans or expectations. After all, things had not been going his way lately.
Eventually, this musical diary of his lonely, sickly winter in the woods coalesced into an album that he titled For Emma, Forever Ago. That summer Vernon uploaded it to MySpace – as one did back in those days – under the name “Bon Iver.” The name was a deliberate misspelling of a French greeting that he’d encountered while bingeing Northern Exposure up at the cabin: bon hiver, which means, perhaps ironically, “good winter.”
He figured the album would just be good to have in his back pocket as a demo or something, but it turned out he was mistaken. For Emma exploded in the online music community shortly after Vernon uploaded it, and then exploded again in the music world at large after Indiana label Jagjaguwar picked it up. The song “Skinny Love” especially took off, soon to be heard in coffee shops and Hollisters the world over despite its departure from the approved template for acoustic singer-songwriters. Its lyrics were bizarre, its chord structure resisted open mic covers, and Vernon’s vocals on it swung for the fence, alternating between birdlike falsetto and borderline yelling.
Yet it was also beautiful, unique and earnest. I know from experience, because the song eventually found its way onto a mix tape (ok fine, CD) that a high school girlfriend gave me in 2009, and it stood out dramatically from the other plaintive indie ballads on that mix. Soon thereafter I sought out the whole album, and have been on the Bon Iver bandwagon throughout the 10 years since.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about Bon Iver that has remained so compelling for me and his/its/their millions of fans after all this time, but it’s undeniable that there’s something. It’s kind of hard to even talk about. As a band, Bon Iver has expanded its roster far beyond Vernon himself, yet he’s always been inextricably at its core. So I can’t even tell which pronoun to use when referring to…it? Him? Them? I don’t think I’ll figure it out by the time I get to the end of this post. Ultimately I’m talking about Vernon himself more than anything, so for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick with “him;” but in the meantime, know that I’m being unfair to his many and varied collaborators in doing so.
Whatever its source, the sense of mystique around Bon Iver has remained consistent across the past decade-plus. He’s always spun lyrics out of his own unique brand of word salad, preferring phonetics over articulate ideas in verses like “her the heron hurried away,” or “teach our bodies, haunt the cause.” His marketing imagery is densely abstract, festooned with hazy landscapes, weird symbols and small icons that sort of look like 19th-century clip art, if that had ever been a thing.
When he shows up in public, you’ll never ever see him in the hipster uniform of skinny chinos and Clarks. Instead, he favors things like gym shorts, bro tanks and disheveled hair. Not like sexy tousled hair – just disheveled, a pile of aimless straw-colored frizz, usually with a scruffy beard to match. The overall effect is a bit jarring. “Wait,” you ask yourself upon seeing him, “that guy made that music?” Well, yeah. He may just look like your big brother’s gaming buddy or your parents’ HVAC guy, but he did, in fact, make that music.
There’s always been this weird tension between Vernon’s stubborn individuality and his craving for communion, both of which he wears on his sleeve even if he doesn’t explicitly talk about them in his lyrics. In the wake of the 2012 Grammy win for his self-titled second album, Vernon suffered something like an allergic reaction to fame. Suddenly receiving the mantle of indie-pop poster boy felt smothering, and exacerbated his tendencies toward depression and anxiety. He realized that shrugging off the Bon Iver name would allow him to shrug off at least some of the burden of celebrity as well, and so he announced in late 2012 that the band would be put on indefinite hiatus. “I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it,” he said. And he did, for almost five years.
But he remained restlessly active in the interim, making music with everyone from (again) Kanye West to indie royalty Aaron Dessner to the very niche Collections of Colonies of Bees. If Bon Iver had been a serious relationship, then Vernon was now single and mingling again. But floating around as a free agent didn’t turn out to have the liberating effect he’d been hoping for. At one point, thinking that he needed to clear his head with some serious alone time, he took a trip to Greece by himself. But as he glibly puts it, “I was trying to find myself, and uh… I did not.” Instead of finding consolation and room to breathe, he fell into suffocating anxiety again. From the sound of it, it was almost as bad as his experience after the Grammys years earlier.
This aborted attempt at a spirit journey had at least one good result, however. While wandering aimlessly between hotels, he found himself singing a simple, enigmatic line into a handheld recorder he had with him: “it might be over soon.” No one, not even Vernon, is exactly sure what “it” was that “might be over soon,” but the phrase served as a shorthand for the almost Psalmic mixture of desire and anxiety that he was going through. Pitched up and distorted, it would eventually open 22, A Million, the album with which Bon Iver returned in 2016.
The passage of time was evident on this third album: where the previous two had been lush and ethereal, 22 was…crunchy, unpredictable, downright abrasive in parts. One track featured an ensemble of saxophones; another was just Vernon’s voice layered and autotuned into a digital choir; another sounded like a boxing match put through a bitcrusher. Instead of the poetic pining of For Emma and self-titled, Vernon’s vocals and lyrics here were wound tight with frustrated existentialism. Bon Iver had always been weird, but this was a different flavor of weird.
For my part, I absolutely loved it, if for no other reason than that it perfectly accompanied the singular angst I myself was going through at the time. I had just tipped over into my late twenties, and felt utterly befuddled as to what I was doing with my life professionally, relationally, vocationally, geographically, spiritually… philologically, dietarily, who knows. 22, A Million held a kaleidoscopic mirror up to all my feels, going beyond mere heartache and punching into a sort of emotional multiverse where I heard the phrases “I find God” and “well I better fold my clothes” within the same song.
On that note, the album also situated this craziness within a cosmic context. Being the religious millennial anomaly that I am, it felt very much like Vernon was speaking my language. The whole thing – music, lyrics, album art, track titles – was littered with Scriptural allusions, numerology, and random esoteric symbols, many of which were pure invention. It’s stuff to make a conspiracy theorist’s head explode, and to make a Christian listener suspect that Vernon is either secretly one of our own or some kind of occultist.
Neither is accurate though. Although Vernon has always been fascinated by religion (he actually majored in religious studies in college – nerd), he shares the blithe agnosticism of most of his generation. In 22 – and the rest of his music – there isn’t necessarily a deeper meaning beyond the search for meaning itself. This is part of why Vernon refuses to give his lyrics the same kind of semantic clarity that most other singers would, and what makes him so mysterious and relatable at the same time. He’s not really interested in telling you who he is and what he’s about; he’s more interested in what you can hear and feel in his work.
While that might smack frighteningly of relativism, especially to this blog’s readers, I think it’s actually very wholesome. It serves as a tonic to the current cultural atmosphere, which is aggressively dedicated to telling us what to think every day, all the time, across innumerable sound bites. Vernon’s ambiguous attitude pushes against that, revealing a respect and even affection for his listeners. He wants his music to be participatory, not just performative; to be its audience’s experience, and not just his own ideas.
In short, Vernon was never satisfied with simply being on stage by himself with a guitar. Despite his weirdness and individuality, he’s always – desperately – wanted to do what he’s doing with others. This is why he freaked out when suddenly tasked with being a one-man pop culture icon, why he pushed back against the interviews and photoshoots accompanying 22’s release, and why he ultimately had to come back to Bon Iver.
Which brings me, finally, to the band’s latest album, i,i, which was physically released last week and digitally released a couple weeks prior. It opens with 30 seconds of what sounds vaguely like a whale learning to play the saxophone, mixed in with audio of Vernon’s friend Trever Hagen cheekily telling someone that, yes, he is recording. Stylistically, the album is very similar to 22, but tonally it’s completely different. Where before Vernon was flailing around in a sea of isolation and bewilderment, here he’s found – or come back to? – his tribe. “I like you… and that ain’t nothin new,” he deadpans on “iMi,” a track that’s just as weird and luminous as anything else in Bon Iver’s repertoire – yet notably more joyful.
That friendly, upbeat, hopeful quality pervades the whole album, signaling a shift for Vernon and the band overall. He’s been much more open-handed in the publicity cycle for this album than he was for 22, A Million, and in the process brought the rest of the band into view as well. The group is launching an arena tour for the first time in their history, embracing to a degree the popularity that had come earlier, perhaps before he/they (??) were ready for it. The album’s name is itself a tiny shorthand for community: multiple individuals coming together while remaining themselves. In general, “there’s a lot of knots that are untied right now,” Vernon says.
The first time I listened through i,i, my inner cynic was tempted to write off these new good vibes as just a weed-fueled hippy phase. But let’s be real, Vernon and the gang were probably smoking just as much weed five years ago as they are now. I think there’s something deeper going on here – I think Vernon, as a perhaps-unwilling revolutionary figure in the world of indie music, has finally had some grace bust through some long-standing walls. As I listen to the album more, I can’t help but feel happy for him, and share in some of his contagious if long-delayed optimism.
So keep playing, Justin, and keep being weird, and keep being weird with your people. God willing, one of these days I’ll get to be one of your people who see you perform live.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.