So, who’s up today?
First, the name – Bon Iver. It’s from the french phrase bon hiver, meaning ‘good winter’. I, of course, mispronounced it for quite a long time, saying it loudly and confidently until a kind and sympathetic soul whispered the correct pronunciation in my ear. Since then I’ve found I’m not alone:
However you say their name, it’s certainly been a meteoric rise for this American band. It all started in 2007 when Wisconsin local Justin Vernon, heartbroken and sick, decided to ‘hibernate’ over the winter months in his father’s log cabin in the woods. He intended to recuperate by chopping wood, hunting for food and, well, hibernating. He had the good fortune to have some very basic recording equipment with him and an acoustic guitar. In such splendid and undisturbed isolation he recorded nine haunting and sparse tracks that comprise the debut album ‘To Emma, Forever Ago.’
When Justin emerged, bear-like in the Spring, from his cabin, he played the tracks to his friends who loved them. A music blog called ‘My Old Kentucky Blog’ raved about the album, followed closely by an even more glowing review by persuasive indie music site Pitchfork. And so, it began….
A huge amount has been written about this album, mostly all positive. It’s been described as delicate, hushed, sparse, lonely and, my favourite, a ‘meditative mood-fuck’ (that gem courtesy of Village Voice). It’s graced countless ‘top albums’ lists and propelled Bon Iver onto the world stage. I think people fell in love with this album because it was unique, so different to anything else around at the time. I have to say I didn’t love love this album on a first listen, with the exception of ‘re:Stacks’ with its spontaneously gorgeous melody. This was because I had trouble deciphering the lyrics and, when I did, some of the words sounded at odds with each other. After many listens now, I can say this is a collection of enduring songs, beautiful in a spare, mournful way. It’s sad, but definitely not sad-sack. This album is all about Justin’s voice. He sings mainly in a falsetto (not in a BeeGees sort of way) and, in many of his songs, his voice echoes again and again so we are hearing, not one, but many Justin’s singing. The full range of his vocal powers can be heard on tracks ‘The Wolves (Act I and II)’ and ‘Creature Fear’. This man can sing.
So, thank you Emma whoever, and wherever, you may be.
Have a listen to standout tracks ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Blindsided’.
Bon Iver was on a roll. In 2011, their sophomore album ‘Bon Iver‘ was released, once again to rave reviews. This time, Justin was not alone. The band had swelled to four, along with some talented guest musicians. The album is a fuller, more complex affair than ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ with multi-layered, shimmering sounds coming at you from all directions. The similarity to ‘Emma’ is that, once again, it is Justin’s voice that is the star. Pitchfork placed ‘Bon Iver’ as it’s number 1 album of 2011. Out of the two albums, it’s the one I listen to most.
Don’t expect any traditional song structure here with a verse-chorus-verse. These songs are all about rich, mesmerising melodies, often with whispered and, sometimes, nonsensical lyrics. They are named after place names – some real, some imagined. Certain lines stand alone and anchor a song, such as ‘I was not magnificent’ in the glorious ‘Holocene’. Each track naturally moves into the next without breaking the spell, with the penultimate ‘Lisbon, OH’, a surreal instrumental track, preparing us for the grand finale – unabashed 80’s ode ‘Beth/Rest’. ‘Beth/Rest’ has divided listeners. ‘Allmusic’ called it an ‘overblown debacle’ that ‘sounds like the theme song to a horrible ’80’s movie about unicorns (only not that good)’. Brilliant, except I disagree. I love the shameless Bruce Hornby-ish nature of the song (including the Kenny-G moments of sax), even though I think only Bon Iver could get away with it.
My favourite tracks – ‘Michicant’, ‘Wash.’ and, of course, Holocene.
A final comment – Bon Iver is amazing live. If you get the chance, go see them. For some reason I thought we’d all be sitting immobile in our seats, sobbing into our hankies. But, no, the sound was huge, multi-textured and enveloping.