I don’t exactly remember the first time I listened to Bon Iver. I must’ve been around 14 or so, but I do remember how my life changed. Before that point, I had always found it cheesy when someone talked about how a specific musician or artist had ‘changed their life’. I felt this was a massive exaggeration used only for shock value. Clearly, I was naïve.
Until Bon Iver, there had never been a musician that had moved me so deeply and fundamentally. Sure, there had been artists who’d been very important in my journey within music and poetry, but this was different. I could feel Bon Iver’s music. His music made me feel emotions that I didn’t even know the names of yet. I got thinking about music not only as an art but as a power: something with the potential to emotionally shape and affect you as it wishes, and also, as you wish it to.
The man behind Bon Iver is a Wisconsin musician by the name of Justin Vernon. Vernon had been making music for a while before Bon Iver, with other projects such as Mount Vernon and DeYarmond Edison, but it was with the debut release of 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago that he became recognized by contemporaries and critics in the industry.
— Bon Iver (@boniver) October 30, 2017
For Emma was also the first project I heard from him. At first listen, it was otherworldly. I couldn’t exactly make out what Vernon was singing, but his angelic vocals, matched by the rusty and sombre instrumentals in the background provided me with the opposing feelings of comfort and solitude. It sounded so authentic and natural that it was no surprise to me when I found out that Vernon had recorded all the songs in his father’s isolated hunting cabin. This was done following a crisis in his life, when he had parted ways with music, his friends and his then-girlfriend and retreated into remoteness.
There is pain in For Emma. It is a musical journey into sadness. The song ‘Skinny Love’, for example, made me feel extreme heartbreak about a lost relationship, which (being 14) I had no understanding of. However, there is a subtle, reserved joy in his music. ‘Flume’, even though audibly sorrowful, has always conveyed to me hope. Hope. I presume it wasn’t written with that sentiment in mind, but that’s how it was processed for me personally. And it varies from person to person. Whilst I can find ‘The Wolves’ thoroughly sad, another listener can find it uplifting. But neither emotion negates the other: there is no sorrow without hope and no hope without sorrow.
From a technical standpoint, I respect musicians who evolve. Not just continue rehashing the same, fail-proof method, but changing and exploring with sound. This is the case for Vernon. With his Blood Bank EP, he incorporated auto-tune and more contemporary elements from folk. By his second, self-titled LP, he was using more complex and intricate instrumentals, and by 2016’s 22, A Million, Vernon had taken a head-first dive into experimental electronic folk.
But even though this change alienated some purist fans, I always felt that the emotional connection with his music remained. His deep and bass-filled vocals in ‘Minnesota, WI’, always transport me to the place and time when I first heard the song, providing me with a deep sense of nostalgia, even though this wasn’t a time in my life when I was particularly happy. This sense of nostalgia is a recurring theme in his music: I often find myself feeling a distant, vague nostalgia about unknown moments and unclear events. It doesn’t matter what the events are: his music allows you to reflect. With this reflection, you are filled with both sorrow and hope, contemplating the haziness of the past and the abyss of the future.
The same song can also make me feel different emotions, depending on the context of my listening to it. The first time I heard ‘Towers’, I was down in the dumps about personal problems going on in my life: the song mirrored my pain and allowed me to dwell within my own sadness. However, I recently heard ‘Towers’ following a particularly good day, when I felt content and hopeful: it reflected this joy with a soothing warmth.
The sentiment of Vernon’s music is malleable and indistinct, but this is what makes it so impactful. It leaves a lasting legacy because it always fits into your life, just like a missing puzzle piece. It’s the solace you were desperately in search of; it’s the solace you didn’t know you needed.
Vernon thrives off his musical abilities: you can become equally as emotional from listening to the acoustic and instrumentally rudimentary ‘Flume’ as from the distorted acapella harmonies of ‘715 – CREEKS’. These abilities are unique to his low-key and grief-stricken style, and that’s perhaps why Birdy’s 2011 hit cover of ‘Skinny Love’ doesn’t have nearly as much lasting depth as the original. It’s too polished: her vocals sound like they’re trying to be sadder than they can manage and the triumphant piano disregards the subdued, heartbroken melodies strummed from the acoustic guitar.
Vernon’s songs don’t try to cover up his emotions or adjust them to be presentable. Just listen to ‘A Song for a Lover of Long Ago’, perhaps his magnum opus, in which Vernon’s vocals deteriorate progressively into mumbled cries, struggling to finish with the song. Instead of re-recording, this take becomes the studio version of the song. The pain is real, not forced or faked, and the listener builds a relationship with the musician through the honesty of his music.
Bon Iver’s contributions to music have been monumental. His cover of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ managed to convert a dramatic 80s ballad into yet another moving piece of emotional suffering. He has also frequently collaborated with mainstream icon Kanye West, showing his musical versatility. Although the lyrics in West’s ‘Hold My Liquor’ are often brash and occasionally aggressive, Vernon encapsulates the song with a sombre and bleak sentimentality, completely changing its effect.
Yes, this article is all about Bon Iver. Yes, I praise Bon Iver throughout this entire article. Does that make Justin Vernon the greatest musician of all time? No. Music is subjective, and I am just merely highlighting how one musician can be so important in an individual’s life. Music can make you dance, it can make you sing, and it can make you think. But perhaps the most crucial element is that music can make you feel. Hearing a song that speaks to you, that enters your body and moves through your veins; it’s a visceral experience.
Bon Iver has been one of the most essential parts of my life ever since I discovered his music. Like an old friend, his music is not only beside me on the good days, but it also accompanies me on my darkest nights, shining like a beacon, understanding me deeply and personally. His music has made me cry with sorrow and cry with joy on numerous occasions. It would be an understatement to say his music has changed my life.
— Bon Iver (@boniver) January 4, 2018
When music sounds good to you, it fluctuates around you. When music affects you that deeply, it travels within you. Bon Iver’s music travels within me. Whose music travels within you?
Mateus de Sá
Featured image courtesy of boniver.org.
Image use license here.