Justin Vernon, widely known as Bon Iver, has an unwritten copyright on the ethereal world of modern music.
His ascendancy still stands on his sophomore, self-titled album Bon Iver. For Emma, Forever Ago (2008) was a world-class record in the department of mourning, but Bon Iver is different. It’s not for people of the past. Rather it’s for himself, his listeners and the present time — Iver has been revitalized and welcomes you to partake.
He shared his take on the transformation of his sound in an interview with NPR: “Part of what For Emma meant to me was that it was an element of change,” Iver said. “An autumnal sort of recycling of spirit or something.
“And I knew that what I had to do for the next album (Bon Iver) was simply make a record for me.”
Complete with remarkable falsetto vocalizations and indecipherable words (until consulting the internet for his lyrics), it seems Iver has graduated from the University of Heaven with a degree in poetry — a wordsmith of a quality that is simultaneously akin with Issaac Brock and e.e. cummings.
Iver’s debut album For Emma made him into some flavor of hero in the quiet-indie music scene, but in 2010, when Kanye West asked him to collaborate, he struck wide-release gold. As well as contributing vocals on West’s “Monster,” samples from Iver’s track “Woods” are heard on “Lost in The World,” a hit on the hip-hop masterpiece that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
This album unfolds most majestically when heard all at once, as it flows through forty holistic minutes of something so familiar but also recharged with a new perspective. “Perth” and “Holocene” stand a bit taller than the rest, holding themselves with the confidence of Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name.
“Perth” starts the record off with a prominent drum roll march that later becomes enthusiastically entangled with a chorus of horns. The rattling energy of this track swells within Vernon’s lustfully spontaneous vocal contribution to the orchestra: “Still alive for you.”
Iver has no ordinary instrumentalists — in addition to his usual three-person accompaniment, Colin Stetson (Arcade Fire), Mike Lewis (Andrew Bird) and C.J. Camerieri (Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens) comprise his triumphant horn section that enhances Bon Iver, recorded and live.
Currently Iver’s most popular song on iTunes, “Holocene” deserves its reign. It might have helped that Iver sang this track in his second appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” celebrating the summer release of Bon Iver.
The lyrics of “Holocene,” among most others, leave space for the mind to entertain numerous meanings. He sings, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent / Strayed above the highway aisle / (Jagged vacance, thick with ice) / I could see for miles, miles, miles.”
It becomes even easier to float between varied images and thoughts throughout his visceral music when you know Vernon’s opinion on his creation of “Flume” from For Emma and all of Bon Iver. In an interview with NPR, Iver said, “I think I got really into that thought that a song could change and breathe and bleed.”
Bon Iver is a mood-less record … and that happens to be a beautiful disposition in this context. You don’t have to be remembering and wallowing for it to work. On the flip side, it’s also not there to simply cheer you up. It’s your best friend. It’s there all the time and it’s great all the time, as it changes and breathes and bleeds.