It has been 10 years since we first heard the magical sound of Bon Iver when they made their debut with For Emma, Forever Ago. For someone who has to put a lot of focus on lyrics to actually feel the emotions of a song, I really have no idea what my favourite band talks about half the time. Yet, at a sonic level, the group has touched me very deep in the heart in a way that none of the others ever have.
Over these ten years and three critically acclaimed albums, their sound has changed drastically, yet remained exactly the same. The first song of their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago and the last track on their latest album 22, A Million are as close to each other in their vibe and as far apart in terms of their position in the discography. All musicians evolve, all fans complain. But in the case of Bon Iver, the evolution has been drawn out with very smooth transitions from album to album and in between EPs. Where For Emma, Forever Ago has a dominant folk element laden with the stories of tragic love and loss, 22, A Million has perfectly structured haphazard sounds revolving around the themes of religion and of having found one’s purpose. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was the album in the middle, both, chronologically and thematically. It has a heavy undertone of coping with loss and finding oneself which are beautifully mirrored in their sound and lyrics, wherein they seem to have to diminished the folk element of their previous album just enough to take out the cheerfulness of it.
What remains the same, however, is the overbearing hypnotic effect of Vernon’s voice set against a folk/rock background. Not bound by or limited to a genre, the music lays major emphasis on the ambient tone which makes it stick with you until long after you’ve heard it. Over the years of the band’s ten year long career, lead man Justin Vernon has had many other successful projects as well, which in no way are close to the work of Bon Iver in terms of style. The quality never lacks though. Having tackled different genres and collaborated with different artists, from Kanye West to James Blake, the man has really played the field. He accords his distinct sound to everything he touches, yet his side projects manage to have a completely different structure and feel in comparison to his work with Bon Iver.
On For Emma, Forever Ago, the feeling of sadness is the overpowering emotion. The acoustic strums give it a very comfortable feel making it easily relatable, even if you cannot understand the lyrics, and instantly transport you to the much talked about cabin in the woods where the album was conceived solely by Vernon. It is very dramatic, the idea of a lonely man spending months in a cabin and coming out of the experience with beautifully sad music. But, this drama adds so much character and depth to the music that it speaks to you right away. The many covers of Skinny Love will never match the melancholy on Bon Iver’s original version. The manifold lyric quotes circulating over the internet will never capture the true beauty of For Emma, not truly. When it comes to numbers, For Emma, Forever Ago became one of the strongest debuts by any artist of that decade. If you were into indie music, you would have certainly heard Bon Iver. The band set a very high bar, and surprisingly, outdid themselves with their next album Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
I’ve learned that when an artist is about to drop a new album, as a fan, you should never, never, expect or hope for the same kind of music they made the last time around, no matter how much you love them for it. Keep faith in the artist for making something new, something great. A lot of people were disappointed with the sophomore album by Bon Iver. By this time they had released a well-received EP, and Vernon had collaborated with acts like Volcano Choir and Gayngs and put out brilliant music. The expectations were high with Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Not surprisingly, people were disappointed because the sound had drifted away from the first album. In spite of the initial apprehension, the album slowly became a fan favourite and is almost just as appreciated as the first one, maybe even more (by me).
The sophomore album was different because it was grander. Thankfully, I heard the second album before I listened to the first one and was able to judge them in their respective capacities, and loved them for what they were. This one involved inputs from more people and was a cumulative result of combined efforts, evident in the different sounds of the ten songs on this album. Within or without the context of the discography, this album is a brilliant one. Each song has its own character, its own place on the album (quite literally). Emphasis is given to various geographical locations which can be interpreted in various ways. Surely, these places or places in general meant a great deal to the band. The theme throughout the album is that of coping with loss and finding a path. I will not hold back and call Holocene the best track there is in the world of indie music.
With the third album, everything about Bon Iver changed. This could be unintentional but there is a line in 33 “God” that goes, “these will just be places to me now”. They had clearly moved on from the loss that was weighing them down before and were in a different state of mind now. The soft, emotional vibe that they were associated with was replaced with fast-paced and muddled sounds which were beautiful in their own different way. 22, A Million does not impress at once, solely because it is strange. I had to give it some time, but now, it has grown on me so much that I do not prefer anything over it. The album contemplates questions of religion and life. It is the music of a matured artist, one that does not mope for months in a cabin in the woods. Evidently, 35-year-old Justin Vernon has come a very, very long way and so had the music of Bon Iver. This album has actual glitches, static, incomprehensible lyrics, and much deeper meanings. Despite all this, somehow, they still have that Bon Iver sound. It is difficult to put a finger on it, but some shred of that old Bon Iver that gave us Beth/Rest is still present in this rather psychedelic record.
It is heartwarming to see how the band and their music have evolved. Over the last ten years they have created an everlasting place for themselves in the indie world. Shortly after their debut, they had created a strong fan base. It was not uncommon for the casual listener to become an outcast for not liking the band enough. It did not take them long to become a must-listen for a new indie fan, and it wasn’t very difficult for them to maintain that position. I hope they continue to enjoy that privilege and keep making that beautiful, beautiful music.