This past Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of Bon Iver's debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. With the nine simple, wintry songs on this album, Justin Vernon not only created some of the most personally cathartic music in existence, but kick-started an entire indie folk movement that inspired an appetite for artists like Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes while giving rise to the earthy-bearded-dude-with-a-guitar trope that we all know and either love or love to hate. In the last ten years, Vernon has produced two more equally brilliant albums as Bon Iver and has worked with numerous side projects such as Volcano Choir and The Shouting Matches. To celebrate ten years of indie music's Henry David Thoureau, here are ten reasons to love Bon Iver aka Justin Vernon.
1. The Man Knows How To Handle a Breakup
Part of the allure of For Emma, Forever Ago is the well-known story behind its creation. Fresh off of a rough breakup, Justin Vernon bunkered down in a cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness and churned out the entirety of the material on the album with his acoustic guitar and his woes. Some people make questionable changes to their personal appearance or become raging Tinder addicts as the result of romantic heartbreak, but Vernon wrote one of the most influential indie records of all time. I wonder how his ex is doing...
"Flume" is the opening track of For Emma, and it is a highly underrated Bon Iver song. The acoustic strumming that opens the song sounds unaltered from the first time Vernon played it for the four walls of his cabin. The lack of distortion or any sort of adornment throughout the rest of "Flume" is exactly what made the album it precedes stand out. That and Vernon's high pitched, crackly voice rising in a perfectly forlorn wail.
3. Good Taste in TV/Movies
Bon Iver collaborated with The Chieftains on "Down In The Willow Garden", a mournful ballad that concludes Episode 4, Season 2 of the FX series Fargo. I've actually not seen many episodes of Fargo as a show, but it is one of the best movies of all time featuring one of the best regional accents our nation has to offer, and it makes sense that an artist as dynamic as Bon Iver would contribute to such a worthy soundtrack.
4. Good Taste in Cover Selections
This cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" in collaboration with James Blake features spare, muffled instrumentation so the beautiful vocal harmonies can shine. Nobody can rival the original version just because of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's well deserved legendary status, but Blake and Vernon come as close as humanly possible.
5. Solid Covers By Other Artists
While we're talking about covers that measure up admirably against the original, Birdy's famous rendition of "Skinny Love" might be almost as well known as Bon Iver's original. Birdy sings Vernon's searching relationship eulogy with a less detached intensity, giving her cover more of a frustrated breakup flavor than the quiet devastation of the iconic track.
This song from Bon Iver's most recent album shows how Vernon's music still feels like it is enveloping your ears, yet isn't confined to its folky beginnings. "666" has the signature ethereal quality of a Bon Iver song, but illustrates evolution with synths and an echoey, more modern sound. There is still an isolated feeling to the song, but not so much the snowy woods variety of loneliness as the kind you might feel while walking on a city street. Consistency is an admirable quality in an artist, but an ability to sound fresh ten years after your first album is even more impressive.
7. His Cool Moniker Inspires Shoutouts
Like most people, I initially didn't get the whole thing where it's pronounced "Bon EE-verre" because it's an intentional misspelling of bon hiver (French for "good winter") and I said "Bon EYE-ver" when I first discovered For Emma, Forever Ago and had to inform all my friends of my find like the obnoxious young hipster that I was. The nod to a good winter makes sense as the entirety of For Emma was written over the course of a single winter. The confusing name caught the attention of Norwegian punk group Sløtface as their song, "Sponge State" shouts out Vernon's best-known stage name saying, "It's French I say/ It's not his name, It's not his name".
8. Facial Hair On Point
Justin Vernon isn't a modern Thoreau just because of his penchant for spending long periods alone in the woods. Like the author of every high school English student's nightmare, Vernon also flaunts a downy and lustrous beard, sometimes accented with a faint soul patch and sturdy handlebar mustache.
9. Collaboration With Kanye
Vernon contributed extensively to Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and is featured on "Monster" and "Lost In The World" from the same album. "Lost In The World" is arranged around a sample of Bon Iver's "Woods", a song that illustrates the proper use of autotune. Kanye is, unexpectedly, a huge Bon Iver fan and even proclaimed him "one of the baddest white boys on the planet" at Glastonbury Music Festival in 2015. If Kanye West said it, you know it must be true. He also collaborated with Kanye and Francis & The Lights on "Friends."
10. "For Emma"
This is THE sad breakup song. From simple statements like "My knees are cold" that somehow perfectly sum up the loneliness immediately following a goodbye, to contradictions like "For all your lies/ You're still very lovable" that offer the first taste of the emotional roller coaster of moving on, the title track to Bon Iver's groundbreaking first album is timeless.
The fact that "For Emma" is as emotionally honest as the rest of the album means that Vernon was probably looking into the future as he wrote it because Emma wasn't "forever ago" at the time, or the song probably wouldn't exist as it does. Nobody writes something this poignant about "That girl from like five years ago. What was her name again?" This song is a time warp anticipating healing. What it couldn't anticipate was an immensely successful music career, that would establish Justin Vernon as an indie icon who is still going strong ten years later.
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