Bon Iver is an indie folk semi-group comprising of Justin Vernon and whoever he has on hand at the time. The name is a slightly Anglicized version of "bon hiver", French for "good winter." Vernon got the phrase from a Northern Exposure rerun.After undergoing a nasty breakup, Vernon retreated to his father's cabin in Wisconsin and began recording demos for an album, planning to re-record them later. When he sent the demos to friends and record labels, however, they told him almost unanimously that the songs should be left as they were, so he signed with Jagjaguwar Records and released the demos as the album "For Emma Forever Ago." It received widespread acclaim and Vernon & co have been exploring the various ways to make listeners cry ever since. Some of Bon Iver's more well-known songs include "Skinny Love," "Re: Stacks," "Blood Bank," "Holocene," "Perth," "Calgary," and "Beth/Rest."Studio albums:
Auto-Tune: Used for the backing vocals in the bridge of "The Wolves (Acts I and II)" and for most of "Beth/Rest." The latter is an affectionate homage to cheesy 80s soft-rock. According to Vernon, it's supposed to be an "innocent" song, a completely unironic embrace of something that's not supposed to be cool.
"Woods" consists of the same stanza repeated over and over, increasingly layered, Auto-Tuned, and distorted each time. It was even sampled by Kanye West, and the resulting song still has less Auto-Tune than the original.
BSOD Song: All of For Emma, Forever Ago has shades of this, but "Re: Stacks" is the most obvious.
Call Back: There's a line in "Minnesota, WI," along the lines of "I didn't lose it in the stacks," referencing the narrator's (and presumably Vernon's) breakdown in "Re:Stacks."
References to "so many foreign roads/worlds" appear in both "Creature Fear" and "For Emma."
The track placement on Bon Iver echoes that of For Emma in some places. "Calgary" and "For Emma," the Epic Songs of their respective albums, are the penultimate tracks as well (not counting "Lisbon, OH.," which is a brief ambient instrumental bridging "Calgary" and "Beth/Rest"), and the album closers seem designed as polar opposites- "Beth/Rest" is a grandiose, horn-heavy keyboard-utilizing track with processed vocals (Better than it sounds), and "Re: Stacks" is just Justin Vernon and an acoustic guitar.
Cluster F-Bomb: The added outro to "Beth/Rest" for the Radio City Music Hall performance.
Loudness War: Thankfully completely averted. For Emma, Forever Ago has a dynamic range of about 11 (13 for the vinyl release) thanks to being released completely unmastered. That's inconcievable for a post-2000s album. The second album was mastered, but still sits at a respectable 10.
Much of For Emma, Forever Ago toys with this, reflecting on the different aspects of the narrator's relationship with 'Emma' (actually a composite of several of Vernon's previous girlfriends) and eventually concluding that he's better off without her ("Skinny love has no nourishment; it can't grow"). This doesn't stop him for having a drunken breakdown over it in "Re: Stacks."
And the Blood Bank EP was completely different from both the Self-Titled AlbumandFor Emma (though it did foreshadow "Beth/Rest" with "Woods"), so one could say that every Bon Iver release so far has been a New Sound Album.
Non-Appearing Title: Many examples, among them "Perth," "Minnesota, WI," "Holocene," "Michicant," "Wash.," "Calgary," "Lisbon, OH," and "Beth/Rest." Partial examples include "The Wolves (Act I and II)," which features "the wolves" but not "(Acts I and II)," "Re: Stacks" which features the word "stacks" but not "Re:," and "Hinnom, TX," which features "Hinnom" but not "TX."
Obvious Beta: Inverted; the recordings found on "For Emma, Forever Ago" were supposed to be demo versions that would be rerecorded later, but those who listened to them liked them so much that they convinced Vernon to release them exactly as they were- as a result, every track on the album (with the exception of "For Emma," which had horns and drums added, and "The Wolves (Act I and II)," which had its backing vocals processed and distorted) is the original demo. It worked, and the lonely, isolated atmosphere made the album all the more heartrending.
Precision F-Strike: "Holocene" and "Towers" both have one. The latter is quite easy to miss.
There's one in "Creature Fear" too, but it's used at such an uplifting point in the album (and rather hard to make out) that a lot of people don't hear it: "so many foreign worlds/so relatively fucked/so ready for us/a creature fear."
Self-Backing Vocalist: Almost all of the tracks on "For Emma, Forever Ago," most notably "Lump Sum," where is voice is layered so much that the song sounds like it's being sung by a choir of Justins. Justified by the fact that he was completely alone in a cabin in the wilderness, and thus didn't have anyone else to sing backup.
Averted on the Self-Titled Album; since, unlike during the recording of For Emma, he wasn't alone in the woods during recording, he could bring in other vocalists to sing backup.
After being asked whether he was worried Beth/Rest, which uses autotune for artistic purposes, would be misinterpreted as being ironic:
Justin: By being overly proud of that fact [that it's not] I could totally inch myself into a corner of being insecure about it. But I literally just don't give a shit. I love that song. I cried while working on that song. I know what that means, where that comes from, and why you cry for music. It isn't for ironic reasons. It's for either sad or joyful reasons. And that song is joyous to me. I don't think it's going to end up being the biggest statement of my career because I have so much more to learn and grow. But I love it as the last song on this record. It feels so good.
Something Completely Different: "Beth/Rest" comes off as a particularly weird '80s Power Ballad. "Hinnom, TX" is probably the strangest thing on the album, though- a reverb-drenched track which features, among other things, a malfunctioning drum machine crackling into static in the background, several layers of instruments which are only really audible when heard as multitracks, and no chorus but rather two individual sections (the first of which has Justin Vernon singing in a nearly unrecognizable baritone).
Throw It In: In "The Wolves," a siren can be heard in the distance.
There's a bit of seemingly incomprehensible studio chatter at the end of "Calgary." The isolated multitracks for the song (released as part of the remix competition) reveal that it's "...two people to pay, and that's not really great, in fact I really don't want to pay two people right now."