In-depth Creature Fear: A comprehensive guide to Bon Iver

We take an in-depth look at the history of Justin Vernon.

After five years of relative silence, things look to be in motion more than ever for Bon Iver’s third album. A set entirely composed of new music has been promised at Justin Vernon’s own Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin this summer, and a snippet of that music has already been shared online. Ooer.

After second album ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’, Vernon said it may well be his last. Everyone just kind of accepted it. It’s a wonder how he’s got to such a point of adoration that he’s able to do absolutely whatever he feels; he’s now an artist worlds away from the shy figure that emerged from a Wisconsin cabin with one of the albums of the decade in 2008.

Here’s the story of one of this generation’s most intriguing faces - a comprehensive guide to Bon Iver.

Cabin fever

The story is well-told by now. When Wisconsin native Justin Vernon’s band DeYarmond Edison broke up in 2007 - the same year he exited a relationship - he decamped to his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin. At first there was no plan to make music out of this trip of isolation (he was bed-ridden with a virus after all) but the surroundings stirred something within him, and he emerged, famously, with one of the albums of the decade and a new project - Bon Iver.

‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ is an album that relies so much on its ‘certain time, certain place’ conception that it can never really be challenged or replicated, either by Vernon or anyone else. The band chose Jagjaguwar to sign with, among a whole host of offers from both indies and majors, and Justin Vernon began his journey to stardom.

Becoming a star

Once ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was released by Jagjaguwar in February 2008 - after an initial self-release the previous July - things never really stopped for Vernon and his bandmates. The ‘For Emma…’ tour brought big slots at Glastonbury, and laid the world at Vernon’s feet regarding what he wanted to do next.

One of the big ‘moments’ of his first age as Bon Iver came, like it did for so many, on Later… with Jools Holland. His performance of ‘Skinny Love’ has now gone down in legend, and was one of the biggest steps in taking Vernon to arenas on album two.

Blood Bank

The ‘Blood Bank’ EP came remarkably soon after ‘For Emma..’, and largely saw Bon Iver treading the same ground. The four-track EP’s title track was originally written for his debut, but didn’t quite fit. ‘Blood Bank’ exudes more of a warmth than ‘For Emma..’s blistering heartbreak, and was the first step in making sure Justin Vernon wasn’t always defined by those three months in a cabin.

The EP’s closing track ‘Woods’ was used the following year (2010) as a sample in Kanye West’s track ‘Lost In The World’ from his ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ album, the first in many gigantic Vernon-based collaborations.

Collaborations ahoy

Bon Iver’s collaboration with Kanye West on ‘My Beatiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was a dip into a world debut album Justin Vernon looked a million miles removed from. He contributed vocals to Kanye’s tracks ‘Dark Fantasy’ and hit single ‘Monster,’ and Vernon’s relationship with Kanye has continued since then, with the singer joining West onstage at his Glastonbury headline set in 2015. Oh, and Kanye labelled him “one of the baddest white boys on the planet.” Where’s cabin boy gone, eh?

Kanye and Vernon’s latest collaboration came on ‘Friends’, a new track from New York-based Francis & The Lights, and 2016 also saw Vernon appear on James Blake’s new album ‘The Colour In Anything’ for standout track ‘I Need A Forest Fire’. Guess what he did after that? Came on to sing it at Glastonbury, yeah. You’re entering Fatboy Slim territory here, Justin. Stay away for a year, maybe.

LP2, and new beginnings

By the time Bon Iver’s second album arrived in 2011, the band were big enough for arenas. The sound exhibited on ‘For Emma…’ and ‘Blood Bank’ had some catching up to do in order to fill those rooms, though. Enter ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ - a glorious ten tracks that don’t quite fit the term reinvention, but represent a significant change in the make-up of the band, fit for any hall on this earth.

Where ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was isolated, and all about one place, naming each of the second album’s songs after a different place made such a statement in itself. ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ was the sound of Justin Vernon fully emerging, and bringing a crushing band with him in tow.

The tour for the second album incorporated a stunning stage show, and older songs revamped to the point of bursting. The once-insular ‘For Emma…’ track ‘The Wolves’ had become a cacophonous ten minutes of noise, even incorporating guitar solos. It was unthinkable even a year previous. But then who would have seen Kanye West ft. Bon Iver as a possibility, either? It’s just what Justin Vernon does.

The end?

When the tour for ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ ended, Vernon indicated it might be the end of the band too, saying: “[I’m] winding it down. I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering. There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that.”

His promise was kept for nearly three years, before the band made their comeback at Vernon’s own festival with The National’s Aaron Dessner in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Two new songs were debuted that night, and it looked like Bon Iver really were coming back.

2016, a renewal

A tour in Asia and special ‘Cercle’ shows in Sydney followed the Eaux Claires performance, and the renewal Vernon said he would need to kickstart Bon Iver again certainly looks to be here. The biggest step so far has been Vernon’s promise that this year’s headline set at Eaux Claires will be entirely comprised of new music.

In the current culture of surprise releases, who knows what that could bring. A new album played in full and released just after the set?

22 seconds of new music were released 22 days before the Eaux Claires set, and a full headline set of new music can’t make LP3 far away. Whatever happens, Justin Vernon’s done this all perfectly, and remained one of the most enigmatic characters in music for the past decade.

Tags: Bon Iver, A Comprehensive Guide To, Features

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