Arts and Entertainment

The Many Faces of Bon Iver

Bon Iver has proven to be an unmatched force in indie music, one who can handle an enormous range of styles with masterful lyricism and sophisticated production.

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By Semoi Khan

Sequestered in a remote cabin for four winter months in 2007 after having his heart broken by an unknown woman he called “Emma,” singer-songwriter Justin Vernon coped with his sadness in isolation. There he wrote, recorded, and produced most of the songs that would ultimately be on the first studio album “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2007) of his band, Bon Iver.

“For Emma, Forever Ago” conveys a unique, haunting melancholy that can only be experienced while completely isolated in a cabin amidst the snowy trees. The album, remarkably simple yet deeply profound, is introspective, the sonic manifestation of gazing out a window on a rainy afternoon. The song “Flume,” which follows his relationship with his mother, has a soft, haunting sound driven by a gently strummed guitar. Among many others, it is beautifully sung in Vernon’s effeminate, reverberating, almost Chet Baker-esque falsetto and laced with poetic imagery. Such imagery is reflected in “The Wolves (Act I and II),” a song about his overzealousness (and consequent vulnerability) in relationships: “Someday my pain, someday my pain / Will mark you / Harness your blame, harness your blame / And walk through.”

Bon Iver’s self-titled second album “Bon Iver” (2011) conveys the same deft lyricism and introspection as its predecessor, but emphasizes the variety in the instrumental backing tracks, contrasting and augmenting the sounds of different instruments in the album. This differs from the songs in “For Emma, Forever Ago,” which are predominantly driven by an acoustic guitar with an occasional drumbeat. “Bon Iver” focuses on detailed descriptions of nature and moments in Vernon’s reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s poetry. “Holocene,” the single off of the album, includes the lyrics, “Jagged vacance, thick with ice / But I could see for miles, miles, miles / Christmas night, it clutched the light, the hallow bright.” This shift away from heartbreak and toward accounts of personal experiences, adventure, and discovery is also represented in the album art: the foggy, raindrop-laden window of “For Emma, Forever Ago” is replaced by an idyllic depiction of a small, rural town on “Bon Iver.”

After their first two albums, which largely adhere to conventions in indie music such as a high pitched falsetto and warm acoustic sounds, Bon Iver took a sharp experimental turn. Their third and fourth albums, “22, A Million” (2016) and “i,i,” (2019) respectively, include intricate, innovative production. These albums forsake the typical song structure (verse, chorus, bridge) and have a much looser flow from start to finish. Sonically, Bon Iver distort the vocals and add more extravagant instrumentals than their first two albums. We see a shift toward avant-garde lyrics, with a greater emphasis on philosophical rather than realistic observations. In the song “iMi,” Vernon sings “If forgiveness is a chore / What you waiting for? / And we been here before? / And I can't ignore it anymore.” This shift also parallels the album art, with both albums having abstract, geometric covers in contrast to the initially realistic album images.

In their nearly 13-year career, Bon Iver has proven that they are able to masterfully convey sophisticated ideas about relationships, sadness, personhood, and emotions in a wide range of musical styles and through shrewdly crafted lyrics. This consistent quality and lyrical profundity set Bon Iver apart in the indie music scene. In a genre dominated by superficiality, Vernon speaking from the heart is a true breath of fresh air and will drive Bon Iver’s enormous success for years to come.