Bon Iver: To Indie folk and beyond

What's Justin Vernon Been Up to Since the Last Bon Iver Album? A Lot. (Photo by Phil Bourne/Redferns via Getty Images)

From the ruins of heartbreak, forged in isolation, Bon Iver was born. In 2006, Justin Vernon, the principal member of the group, was in his mid-20s when his life seemingly fell apart. The woman he loved left him, his band split up and Vernon was bedridden for months when he fell ill with mononucleosis and a virulent liver infection – it was far from any “bon hiver.” He felt as if everything in his normal, happy life was lost, so he ran away from it all in a Thoreau-esque quarter-life crisis.

In search of some kind of catharsis, Vernon drove through the night from the stifling, swampy heat of North Carolina to his family’s cabin in the remote and frigid wilderness of northwest Wisconsin. Initially, he had no intention of writing music, but, through encouragement of his friends, Vernon discovered an emotional release in the minimalistic and poetic words that would keep characterizing his lyrical style.

Over a year later, Vernon emerged from his hiatus after pouring his soul into a nine-track album he titled “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The result was a sound that embodied the environment in which it was created: A quiet, barren, vocally-driven acoustic soundscape that both yearns for the past and shows promise for the future in a life abruptly derailed and lost for meaning. Vernon’s falsetto is soft and comforting which, for a guy with a rather baritone speaking voice, is an impressive feat of vocal dexterity.

The ensuing tidal wave of praise came as a shock, attracting wide acclaim from music critics. “For Emma” would go on to achieve a spot-on dozens of end-of-the-year lists and win several awards. It became a major commercial success for Jagjaguwar, an independent label that signed Vernon shortly after the album’s release, and has become certified platinum with over 1,000,000 total sales.

Vernon, and by extension Bon Iver, does not work hastily, with only three albums encompassing their 11-year career. Moreover, each album released so far marked a distinct change in musical style. For that reason, every release is highly anticipated, stirring the whole industry as people clamor to hear what the dynamic multi-instrumentalist has come up with this time.

In 2016, Bon Iver divided the community with “22, A Million.” Those who were fans of folk and “For Emma” tended to dislike what they perceived to be a confusing and sterile electronic amalgam of distorted vocals and instrumentation. Those who were persistent fans of Vernon’s creative vision praised his experimentation and innovation, going as far as to say he pioneered a genre of electronic, folk-inspired rock.

In “22, A Million” Vernon proves the human voice truly is the most dynamic instrument, a concept that was at the forefront of his work from the get-go. He uses Auto-Tune, chorus effects and a variety of other distortions to create one of the most unique and captivating listening experiences. The song “715 - Creeks” stands out as a perfect realization of Vernon’s vision of the human voice as an instrument as nuanced as an orchestral performance as it features only his vocals – nothing else. It shouldn’t seem possible that something so computerized and digitally-edited can sound and feel so incredibly human. Then again, I would expect nothing short of wizardry from Justin Vernon and Bon Iver.


Mitchell Clark is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at mitchell.clark@uconn.edu.