Blindsided by Bon Iver

By: Dennis Cook

This my excavation and today is kumran
Everything that happens is from now on
This is pouring rain
This is paralyzed

This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization
It's the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me

Bon Iver by Sarah Cass
Like a haunted mistral wind, Bon Iver's debut, For Emma, Forever Ago (given wide release in February on Jagjaguwar after a tiny independent release last year), arrives, full of tousled longing and an ache impossible to hide. Bon Iver (pronounced "bohn eevair;" a conscious bastardization of the French phrase for "good winter") is the recording pseudonym of Justin Vernon, who retired to his father's cabin alone just as snow began to fall in the wake of the break-up of both his love and his longtime band DeYarmond Edison, whose other members went on to form Megafaun. Built on a series of frozen moments created in solitude over three months in Northwest Wisconsin, For Emma is the rare hyper personal song cycle that manages to touch many, most of whom will have little idea of the underground springs that fed this creation. For Emma joins the ranks of such deeply held classics as Joni Mitchell's Blue, Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos and Nick Drake's Pink Moon, each a brave laying bare of one artist's insides.

For Emma knocks you back on your heels from the first listen. There's something fully fleshed about it, a human density to Vernon's compact marvel. In just 37 minutes, one feels they've experienced a profound moment – many of them really – in a person's life, and the lack of specificity, the sheer poetry of the storytelling allows these moments to seep into the listener's life, providing beautifully refracted perspectives on the heart and soul, a new set of keys for unlocking one's own experiences. In much the same way as a gifted film director, we enter a place that hums with strange verisimilitude, an individual set of truths that expands naturally into something far more universal.

Bon Iver by Aaron Landry
"That's sort of an aside or a goal I'd love to do with my life as a musician or an artist, and it's cool to hear [it had that effect] but mostly I feel lucky to clear my head to be able to do something like that," says Vernon. "I don't consider myself a solitary person but I've definitely experienced some of that. I needed it to gain perspective; I needed to get a new face and to shed skin. I got down to something personal and examined it, and maybe that perspective, that sort of minutiae or fish-eye, up-close look is maybe what people are reacting to."

There's something a little scary in the aloneness at the center of this album, something unsettling and exciting about the honesty set down on tape

"That's the magic of music for me. What you put into it is what you get out of it. I think aesthetically and artistically I've always operated on this level - and I'm not just saying this because the record is out there in the world and doing well - but nothing I've done to this point has felt this complete. But it's hard to kind of quantify," says Vernon. "I always feel like an asshole when I try to describe it [laughs]. Maybe I should do a better job of not letting it be so folky or whatever so it isn't described in that way. I'm not just sitting here trying to make music that's been made before."

Bon Iver by Tim Lytvinenko
The songs on For Emma are somewhat orchestral in the way they're constructed, strong sections full of sharp dynamics instead of the usual verse-verse-chorus-verse structure. The expression "chamber folk" has been used to describe For Emma, and while most use that generic shorthand for quiet, acoustic based music, there is a mood and flow that actually harks back to chamber music, particularly the overlapping delicacy and whispered conflict of the piano trios of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. These songs don't end where you expect them to, lingering or exploding into areas only barely hinted earlier in the piece, giving spotlight to individual instruments or leaving the vocals beautifully exposed, all with a reach that goes further than the "indie rock" label Bon Iver usually gets filed under.

Continue reading for more on Bon Iver...

I don't consider myself a solitary person but I've definitely experienced some of that. I needed it to gain perspective; I needed to get a new face and to shed skin. I got down to something personal and examined it, and maybe that perspective, that sort of minutiae or fish-eye, up-close look is maybe what people are reacting to.

-Justin Vernon


Bon Iver
"I think I was always frustrated with myself as a songwriter because I'd write a song too quickly. Now, I'm trying to avoid patterns [you use] just to get done with a song. I really think you need to squeeze or wring a song out more," Vernon says. "I think the important thing to do as a musician is to not click yourself into any pathway. It seems very wrong. Whenever I hear something I open my ears. If it's the Dixie Chicks or Mendelssohn or Steve Reich or John Prine, you gotta listen to it all in the same perspective. It's an emotional context thing. It's music - it's not some fashion statement. I open my ears to everything and I allow myself to interpret things emotionally through my mind. Then I try to turn around and spit music back at people."

There are folk skeletons to some cuts. For example, "The Wolves (Act I And II)" could easily be a mournful bluegrass tune in other hands. It's how Vernon has dressed things up – or stripped them down in some cases – that differentiates his work from the coffee house set. There's an unpremeditated, organic character to the album that eludes easy categorization.

"I think people sometimes jump to conclusions about what a song's gonna be before it's done, and that shouldn't happen in the recording studio," says Vernon. "It's hard to do because the audience gives you bread but you can't shape it around that because that's not what people really want at the end of the day."

Vernon played almost every instrument and sang every note, facing the challenge of hearing how things harmonize and second guessing the insertion of piano or some other sonic element. The final product is remarkably consonant, a feel that pervades without ever settling into one groove.

"The reason I do it like that is almost to save myself the worry of boring someone else. I'm an alright musician but most of the time I'm picking up an instrument and trying to do something on it I'm not capable of. So, it's a long process to figure out what I want to play and then be able to play it with the phrasing and quality I want to hear it at. It's a very repetitive process. I wouldn't even call them 'takes' because I'm usually not sure what it is I'm playing," laughs Vernon. "One of the reasons I like working alone is because if somebody else is there I might skip through things because I feel bad they have to sit through this process. It's carving away and finding out what's in your subconscious. Rather than perfect one style of instrument I guess I just wait until the songs dictate what I want to do, and then battle each part as it comes."

The subconscious is an important aspect of For Emma, which taps into things we can't usually access consciously.

Bon Iver
"I think that's where I found a lot of the most meaningful stuff. When you're writing a song you're writing yourself a lesson or something. So, when I was experimenting with things, I found I was getting a lot out of accessing things right under the surface. Sometimes when they manifested they were strange and kind of obtuse and jagged but they made sense to me in the way subconscious mind stuff makes sense," says Vernon, who keeps the ragged ends of life's threads dangling wonderfully in abrupt tape cuts or distorted crackles. "I definitely wasn't thinking consciously, and the way Emma got constructed was very un-mindful. I wrote twelve or thirteen songs and found that eight or nine of them sort of belonged together. I was lucky that they belonged to this sort of shared pathway that felt like a record to me. They felt like the most accurate depiction of this event or time or recording process."

Taking this one-man, dearly private production into the live setting with a full band has actually proven to be a pleasurable experience for Vernon.

"It's fun because the guys understand me. Mike [Noyce] has known me for a long time – I was his [guitar] teacher – and Sean [Carey] has listened to my music for a few years. They aren't hired guns or anything but they recognize [the album] is a very concise statement, that everything that was there needed to be there," observes Vernon. "So, what we're trying to do is just delicately unwrap the layers of the songs, maybe exposing new directions of the songs as we play them live. They unfold in, dare I say, more masculine versions [laughs]. They take the same care I do in approaching unwrapping these extra layers of skin. It's very nice."

Bon Iver - Skinny Love (Live at Later... with Jools Holland

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headkayce starstarstarstarstar Wed 7/9/2008 01:56AM
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Great article Dennis! This album gives me goosebumps.

Cola21 Wed 7/9/2008 08:14AM
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This album is not musically complex or anything. But I might go so far as to say it's my favorite album of the year so far. His falsetto cuts my open every single time.

Jukebox Hero Wed 7/9/2008 01:51PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Jukebox Hero

Great interview. I have gotten lots of new music lately, but I think this one has gotten played more than anything else (except maybe Fleet Foxes). It's pretty infectious, especially Skinny Love and Wolves. I look forward to seeing him in Portland.

marik Wed 7/9/2008 02:16PM
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To me, this artist contradicts the very principle of what makes an album classic (perhaps that is his charm). The first time I heard his voice I thouhgt it was phenomenal...however, from then on it has gotten less and less inspiring...till now where I find him on the verge of annoying and whiny. Good album - Yes Classic - Hell No

Seattlesublime starstarstarstarstar Wed 7/9/2008 03:30PM
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This album is fucking amazing. I have listened to it more then 40 times and its better every time, I learn or hear something new. Its not upbeat or downbeat, its real. Really real. Its so real that its scary, in a good way. If you are a man and have ever been in love, this is an album you need to own and study.

Rinosquad starstar Wed 7/9/2008 08:53PM
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Classic? Pink Moon Classic? What? Sorry this album is not that good. Its got a style to it so people wanna jump on board. It has faint glimpses (and this is even being overly complimentary) of a sort of Jimmy Jamesesque voice in a grim sort of way. He may be on his way to good things and I think he has some potential, but classic is going wayyy too far. Just b/c he is new and written as a feature everyone wants to say they heard it first. Well written, but over-the-top.

windorascrub starstarstarstarstar Wed 7/9/2008 08:59PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


I disagree^^^^^ Isn't music subjective. One persons classic could be total garbage to you. For me, Bon Iver is the f@#$in man. I bought this album a few months ago and love it. His falsetto just rings to the bone and I think most of this album is great. When I am driving in the mountains or just sitting inside on a rainy day this album is one of my favorites.

HoodooVoodoo starstarstar Wed 7/9/2008 11:28PM
Show -3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
PhunkinDank starstarstarstarstar Thu 7/10/2008 05:33PM
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This album got me through the bitter cold winter up here in Minnesota. I see where people complain about lack of vocal variety, but other then that I think what some people judge as this album's weakness, may also be its simplistic beauty and the mood it generates. It's bare,naked but ever so true. and HooDooVooDoo, you hit it right on, best to listen to when you feel like getting alittle introspective on life, or are inviting over a special someone that evening...easily in my top 5 of the year.

Hollow starstarstarstarstar Thu 7/10/2008 06:22PM
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There's lots of soul on that album. It's good.

Cola21 Fri 7/11/2008 06:32AM
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I think the brilliance of the album and of Justin is that he took the time to understand his limitations and craft them into something musically special and in sync. He makes his own kind of music, writes very personally about life, and throws in the twangs and horns that just break your heart. I'm not saying he is Bob Dylan-esque, but his music was quite simplistic and a lot of the songs sounded the same, especially before he went electric. That doesn't take away from the beauty, does it? Complex vs. simple doesn't equate to good vs. bad.

cocodavies Tue 7/15/2008 11:10AM
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Photo credit for first image (Justin against the blue background) to Sarah Cass please!

Jeff Kash Sun 8/3/2008 11:21AM
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Jeff Kash

How can anyone use the term "brilliant" while describing this whiny garbage?