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Still Alive Your Love: Why Bon Iver Is One of the Most Important Artists of the 2010s

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A lot can happen in five years. Since 2011, Glenn Danzig has announced his return to The Misfits, Apple ended production for the iPod classic, and longstanding holdouts Adele and Frank Ocean have both dropped 25 and Boys Don’t Cry respectively. Even My Bloody Valentine released a new album 20 years after their 90’s classic, Loveless.

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon knows how much can be done in five years. In that time, he has released two full-lengths with his bands The Shouting Matches and Volcano Choir, produced two albums with The Staves and The Blind Boys of Alabama, launched a music festival with members of The National in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has taken Bon Iver on its first tour of Asia, and collaborated on tracks with Mavis Staples, James Blake and, most recently, Francis and the Lights (+ friend/frequent collaborator, Kanye West). He even delivered a speech offering his support to then-Democratic Candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, at a rally ahead of the Wisconsin primary!

Nonetheless, since finishing Bon Iver’s tour in support of their critically-acclaimed second LP Bon Iver, Bon Iver in 2012, Vernon hasn’t returned with any new music for the band that first launched his career. With their second album, Vernon ensured he wouldn’t be remembered just as the guy who wrote “Skinny Love.” That album won two Grammys, was named Pitchfork’s album of the year, and peaked at #2 on the Billboard’s Top 100. Here we are five years later, though, waiting and wondering what comes next for Vernon’s beloved project.

Justin Vernon celebrates his Grammys for Bon Iver's Second LP

Justin Vernon celebrates his Grammys for Bon Iver’s Second LP

Unlike Ocean, who kept pushing back Boys Don’t Cry‘s release date and talking about writing a novel no one wants, Vernon has at least been candid with the reason for Bon Iver’s dormancy.

“We don’t have any plans,” Vernon told Grantland when asked if Bon Iver were preparing for a new record last year. “We’re not being secretive – we just don’t have any plans.”

I understood that Bon Iver required a great deal of time and creative energy from Vernon. I even understood why he remained adamant that he had no interest in rushing to create new Bon Iver music for the sole purpose of satisfying his fans. Not that I was in any way happy about the situation. I assure you I was petulantly vocal about the situation to anyone who made the mistake of showing interest.

Then, just when all seemed lost, Vernon dropped a tweet last month that made me lose my mind.

I doubt there will ever be a tweet capable of inducing the same catatonic state of hysteria I fell into. More to the point, it threw me into a junkie-like frenzy that manifested itself as a three hour period of listening to Bon Iver’s two albums on repeat. It was during that time that I began to reflect on what drew me to Bon Iver in the first place. It stemmed, initially, from my equally strong affinity for The National. I was reading liner notes to their fifth album, High Violet, when I noticed Vernon received a credit for appearing on the album. A close friend and collaborator of the band, Vernon’s name eventually led me to discover Bon Iver’s debut album, the hauntingly beautiful For Emma, Forever Ago. 

His delicate falsetto echoed through the stark musical landscape, lamenting his lost loves and the mediocre direction his life had take up to that point. Ultimately, it was this intimacy that I found so compelling. There was real soul and life within that album, life that comes from the mistakes we make as hopeful, if not slightly directionless, young adults. It’s neither good or bad, it’s simply an authentic intimacy eschewed from ego. For Emma was built up by walls of choirs, soft percussion, and acoustic guitars with Vernon being the primary songwriter. The second album became a part of a much bigger story, one that found its protagonist seeking a means to change his voice as “the author of this band, this project.” Though the project had begun to evolve, that authenticity would be preserved within its identity. 

The transition between the two records proved to be challenging for Vernon, who confessed to Rolling Stone that he really had to reinvent himself as a songwriter. But, just as For Emma‘s opener “Flume” was the catalyst that led to the rest of the record, the first song Bon Iver’s second album “Perth” set the tone and the theme of that album in stone. In 2008, Vernon was out with director Matt Amato shooting a video for For Emma standout “Wolves” when Amato received the news that his close friend, Heath Ledger, had died. The name “Perth” came from Ledger, a native of the Australian city, and established the album’s theme.

“… Perth has such a feeling of isolation,” Vernon explained. “and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren’t.”

The end result of that concept was a 10 song collage. Each track is its own epoch built around rich, diverse instrumentation that Vernon further expands upon in his vivid lyrics. It’s a stunning musical masterpiece that left me in complete awe.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver represented more than Vernon making an enormous leap as an artist. To me, it represents a standard of what a proper artistic follow up should be: taking what the first installment sets forth and using that as a springboard to new ideas and worlds. This is most apparent when comparing the two covers for the records. For Emma‘s album art depicts an obscured view of a wooded area, with no indication of how or why we got there. Here, Vernon was taking stock of where his life had led him while the road ahead remains obscured from view. It’s not till we reach the end that the listener can determine a real sense of place.

Album art courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records

Album art courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records

Album art courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records

Album art courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records 

With Bon Iver, Bon Iver, we find ourselves looking down upon what could easily be that small hunting cabin Vernon took refuge in while writing and recording For Emma. Only now, it seems so small when put into perspective to the greater world around it. It’s an invitation, a return to where Vernon left off.

As we approach August 13th, hopefully our five year wait for a new Bon Iver record will finally come to an end. This would typically be where I would offer my best guess as to what Vernon has in store for us but, in truth, I don’t think there is any possible way to know until those first videos (or, even better, a live stream) of Bon Iver’s set at Eau Claire Music Festival begin to surface online. It’s been a long wait and usually I begin to lower my expectations when preparing for a release of this significance. But Bon Iver has proven that everything is centered on creating fully-realized ideas to the smallest detail that are elevated by the vision they encompass.

Rest assured, by the end of Eau Claire Music Festival, Bon Iver will have made their triumphant return.

Featured image courtesy of Harry Clark Photography

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