by: Nick Keenan
Even as I sit here listening to “Holocene” by Bon Iver, a folk band often confused for its lead singer, Justin Vernon, I try to escape the acoustic atmosphere and the awing lyrics but cannot. Formed in 2007 after the breakup of Vernon’s previous band, “Bon Iver” — adapted from the French for good winter — was the most recent winner of the Best New Artist category at the 2012 Grammy’s.
Although composed of four members, Vernon is often credited with writing the majority of their music, which is especially true for their highly respected, self-released debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago — a genuine, intimate demonstration of what three months of isolation and self-reflection during a Wisconsin winter produces. The most recognized song from that album, “Skinny Love,” especially elicits this ineffable mood of being secluded in a wooden cabin, lost in the white abyss of a winter and feeling desperately alone, and lines like “Sullen load is full/so slow on the split” particularly reverberate with gloom.
At the same time, there is a sense of contentment and comfort as each song unwinds. Vernon’s panned, multilayered vocal tracks, paired with the simplicity of a guitar and faint drumbeat or clap, might be the distinguishing sound of Bon Iver; however, much more should be noted about his approach. Yes, Vernon has an impressive vocal range, and more often than not, he is found guilty of singing in falsetto, but as part of the music itself, it has unspeakable affect; this stylistic choice is a large a component of their rise to fame, one in which they find themselves thrust into the mainstream.
Bon Iver was not swooped up by some big recording studio; it was a tale of DIY. For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded using sub-par equipment (to say the least) within the four walls of Vernon’s cabin, purposefully using the natural acoustics of the space—as did U2 for The Unforgettable Fire in Slane Castle. They became noticed through word of mouth in the indie and concert-going community. What more, there was very limited editing, which by default, sets them apart from Brittany Spears or most of the other sounds you’d hear on KISS FM’s summer playlist.
When the album was released, Vernon told music outlets like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork that Bon Iver’s debut album was not so much a production of music as it was recuperation from the past year’s events. As you may have guessed by now, that recuperation was from tragedy, one characterized by heartbreak, guilt, love and shame. Although you might see this as the banal cliché of “turning your lost love into art,” I beg any listener to reconsider or perhaps just listen. Maybe the packing of these experiences and emotions into song is what gives the listener a sense of “realness,” or maybe it’s the crackly white noises between each strum of the guitar. Maybe it’s both.
Regardless, Bon Iver possesses a sense of originality and maturity in their music. This is not to say I believe other indie-folk bands need rejuvenation in their music a la Wisconsin winter; rather, I find Bon Iver maintaining these ethereal qualities even four years later in their self-titled album, Bon Iver, which was not produced via Midwestern isolation. No sense of originality or aesthetic is lost this time around, and if anything, it is as if Vernon repeated his method, yet still bettered himself. Yes, there are a few more effects, edits and instruments, but as music and the technology with which it is produced changes, the artists must adapt as well.
And so, Bon Iver is what you listen to doing homework, what you mellow out to on a rainy day, what you turn to after a dissolved relationship. Bon Iver is a sound, an artist and a band, whose only hope is that you listen and appreciate. But who really is Bon Iver? I cannot tell you—I can only show. Start by listening to the songs “Holocene” or “Calgary.”
Finally, there is an elephant in the room, at least for those of you that have been listening to Bon Iver all along: How did the scent of Bon Iver go unsniffed by the dogs at the Grammy’s until recently? This also brings into question, what other talented artists have they missed, whom may not have grazed the same stroke of luck as Bon Iver in capturing media attention?
Nick Keenan is a second year student at DePaul University studying Biology with an emphasis in neuroscience. He is a poet, runner, activist, and audiophile, and in his spare time, he enjoys reading Dave Eggers, Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Safran Foer and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Andrea Gibson and Pablo Neruda. Like Adrienne Rich, Keenan believes that “it’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting and painful.”