Founded by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, Bon Iver is an indie folk band featuring Vernon, Michael Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan. The band began when Vernon self-released his first record, For Emma, Forever Ago, after spending three months working through the breakup of a band and a relationship. With much critical praise surrounding the first record, Vernon signed with Jagjaguwar. In the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon collaborated with Kanye West on his latest record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bon Iver released its self-titled second record on June 12, 2011 and entered the Billboard charts at number 2.
Sending Chills Down the Spine
In certain ways, music contains the curious ability to be felt when heard. At times when I hear chords and melodies that I love with all my being, these musical phrases send chills down my spine and manufacture goose bumps throughout the epidermis. Sometimes, a song needs no deep underlying point to remain effective; it only needs a feeling.
With Bon Iver’s latest self-titled release, Justin Vernon builds on his songwriting fundamentals from his debut while replacing the sparse coldness of For Emma, Forever Ago with heavy production and electric instrumentation. In short, Bon Iver is a record that conveys a feeling.
This point reveals itself clearly when an overdriven guitar with hints of a chorus effect soars over a double-bass pedal and crashing cymbals in “Perth.”
As the album unfolds, it becomes evident that Vernon leans heavily on the 80s stylings of Peter Gabriel and Bruce Hornsby.
In all honesty, each track (titled after a City, State, or made-up place) on Bon Iver is perfectly positioned. As such, it is hard to discuss the work from a “song” perspective because the tunes not only blend well together but also each song carries such a high quality that it is hard to privilege one song over another.
Despite this fact, some songs are worth mentioning. First, “Holocene” might signify the prettiest song I have ever heard. With bright-as-the-sun fingerpicked guitars and Vernon’s trademarked falsetto, the song conveys ethereal feelings as he sings,
“And at once I knew I was not magnificent / strayed above the highway aisle / (jagged vacance, thick with ice) / I could see for miles, miles, miles.”
Additionally, the album’s first single, “Calgary,” blends cryptic lyrics, a unique chord progression, instrumental counterpoint, and a four-on-the-floor rhythm. With a clear link to the work of Peter Gabriel present in the song, Vernon croons,
“Joy, it’s all founded / pincher with the skin inside / you pinned me with your black sphere eyes / you know that all the rope’s untied / I was only for to die beside.”
Yet, in perhaps the most daring move to date in Vernon’s career, Bon Iver’s ending track challenges all previously held opinions about cheesy 80s music. Channeling every over-the-top tone found on records in that decade, “Beth/Rest” goes for the gold and, honestly, succeeds.
As a long-sustaining solo builds toward the end of the song, Vernon screeches,
“This is axiom!”
Taken at face value, Vernon affirms the self-evident simplicity and beauty of this record. It does not attempt to fit into a defined “hipster” mold. Instead, it is written with a feeling.
Of course, as with most of Vernon’s undecipherable lyrics, “This is axiom” could exist for the purpose of its sound and feel. In fact, strewn throughout Bon Iver are many erudite words and little narrative focus. While listening to the record, you’ll hear terms like “fide,” “Noachide,” and “soffit.”
Without an overall narrative sense in the lyrics, it is best to view the lyrics as an extension of Bon Iver’s sonic palate. In other words, Justin Vernon not only meticulously placed each note and produced sound to convey an emotion; he also penned each lyric with an overall feeling in mind. As I listen to Bon Iver, I get goosebumps and I know that is the feeling Justin Vernon wants me to have.
Bon Iver is currently my frontrunner for album of the year. Justin Vernon wrote a masterpiece and I suggest that you listen to it. Highly recommended.