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​A Short Career Retrospective of Bon Iver

By Jonathan Skufca | 14/11/16 8:30am

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 12: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver joins The Staves on stage at Hackney Empire on February 12, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images)

by Phil Bourne / Redferns

As 2016 is on its last legs and 2017 appears on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about all of the great music that has come out this year, especially as I craft my personal top 10 albums. One album, while I loved it and will probably have a place in my list, still confuses me every time I listen to it. If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m referring to Bon Iver’s latest release, 22, A Million.

Even apart from the cryptic, seemingly nonsensical song titles, the sheer musical contrast that Justin Vernon, Bon Iver’s frontman and primary face, and his fellow musicians show is present not only in the whole record but also across their three full lengths and one EP. It’s hard to believe that the same act that released the folksy For Emma, Forever Ago released an incredibly experimental record a mere eight years later.

Take the first single released from For Emma, Forever Ago, the highly critically acclaimed “Skinny Love.” The instrumentation is very sparse: Vernon’s high tenor voice is only accompanied by an acoustic guitar and some rudimentary percussion. This allows for the raw emotion of the song to truly ooze out of the speakers—you can hear Vernon’s frustration regarding a situation where, in his own words, “you're in a relationship because you need help, but that's not necessarily why you should be in a relationship.” And it’s powerful. I know the first time I heard the live performance linked above, I wanted to dive into my computer screen and give Vernon a bear hug and tell him everything is going to be okay.

Moving forward to 2009 with the release of the Blood Bank EP, we begin to see the inklings of creativity and musical expansion that would climax in his most recent work. Take the phenomenal “Woods,” which was famously sampled by Kanye West (a HUGE fan of Vernon’s) on “Lost in the World” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (an album that features quite a lot of him). The lyrics are a simple four-line poem and the melody is initially very simple, but with each repetition of the poem comes another layer of Vernon’s auto-tuned voice, peaking with super complex harmonies in borderline counterpoint with each other at the final repetition. Apart from the concept of dense harmonies, it sounds so incredibly different from anything on For Emma…, but the emotion is still there in that the only instrument on the entire track is his own voice.

Continuing to move forward with 2011’s Grammy-winning Bon Iver, Bon Iver, we get to the song that was most of America’s first exposure to the group, the Grammy-nominated (and robbed) “Holocene.” This was the Bon Iver that I initially fell in love with. It combined the folksy finger-picked acoustic guitar and droning percussion with experimental woodwind sounds, and I knew from the first time I heard it that I HAD to listen to the whole record. And I loved it, especially the closing track, “Beth/Rest,” released as the final single from the album. Vernon is quoted as saying this is the song he is the proudest of writing, and it is a definite sign of what is to come in his later work. The main instrument on the track is a synthesizer on a patch ripped straight from a cheesy 80’s-pop ballad. But then Vernon’s voice takes center stage, and the synth seems oddly appropriate behind it, and the riffing guitars and saxophones. And, oh, the lyrics. Throughout the last few years of high school, I took this line as something of a personal creed:

I ain’t living in the dark no more

It’s not a promise; I’m just gonna call it

Even behind this high production value lies an incredibly emotionally moving piece of music.

And now we get to the, by far, most experimental album in the group's catalog. I remember, when 22, A Million was announced, I was genuinely concerned for Vernon’s mental health. I know it was all part of the marketing, but I was honestly confused at most of the promotional material and honestly wondered if the record was going to be any good. Turns out it was. But in a different way than any of his other records. The experimentation, instead of being a cool addition to folksy melodies, took center stage. Take “666” one of my favorites from the record. It still has a few elements that make definitely sound like a Bon Iver track—the guitar sound, vocal harmonies, and the emotional but cryptic lyrics in particular—but the prevalence of vocal samples and heavy distortion are at the forefront of the track and contribute a sense of uneasiness—perhaps the same sense of uneasiness that Vernon has in his own life and is just now figuring out how to express in his art.