Bon Iver is an indie folk semi-group comprising of Justin Vernon and whoever he has on hand at the moment. The name is a slightly Anglicized version of "bon hiver", French for "good winter", which Vernon heard from an episode of Northern Exposure.
The story behind Bon Iver's inception is now considered legendary. After undergoing a band breakup, a relationship breakup, and a bout with several illnesses all within a short time, Vernon retreated to his father's cabin in Wisconsin, frustrated with his music and his life. Initially just planning to isolate and recuperate, he began recording demos for an album, planning to rerecord 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.
On the heels of the album's success, Bon Iver has set out on a tenure of music that's widely known as the soundtrack for lonely, melancholic winters, although the acoustic folk sound this is associated with has given way to experimentation transmuting it through more ambient, glitchy, and electronic processing.
- For Emma, Forever Ago - 2007
- Bon Iver, Bon Iver - 2011
- 22, A Million - 2016
- i,i - 2019
- Blood Bank - 2009
Bon Iver provides examples of:
- A Cappella:
- "715 - CR∑∑KS".
- "Woods", sort of. The vocals are heavily filtered and processed, but otherwise there's no accompanying music.
- Album Title Drop: In "For Emma:"So many foreign roads
for Emma, forever ago.
- all lowercase letters: How the title of "re: stacks" is meant to be formatted.
- Audience Participation Song: "Skinny Love" due to its being a fan favorite, alongside "The Wolves (Act I and II)" mainly for the "what might have been lost" section.
- Used for the backing vocals in the bridge of "The Wolves (Acts I and II)".
- Also used for most of "Beth/Rest," 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, vocodered and distorted each time. It was even sampled by Kanye West, and the resulting song still has less digital processing than the original.
- Nearly all of the vocals on 22, A Million, are digitally processed. Vernon and friend/engineer Chris Messina took the Prismizernote and added an effects rack to itnote , essentially allowing Vernon to change the modulation on his voice on the fly and allowing its use in live performances.
- Bittersweet Ending: Lost love is one of the biggest conceptual cornerstones of For Emma, Forever Ago. The album's ending with "re: stacks" seems to angle towards the bitter side, as while the narrator has begun moving on, he still admits to having deep emotional wounds that he's a long ways away from healing.
- Boléro Effect: "Woods", as mentioned above in Auto-Tune.
- Broken Record: Vernon has a penchant for writing simplistic lyrics that expand in meaning with repeated utterances.
- 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 soft rock ballad (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.
- Epic Instrumental Opener: "Perth" features one.
- Epic Rocking: "re: stacks" is nearly seven minutes long. In the traditional sense of the word "epic", however, Vernon's entire output could count.
- Grief Song: All of For Emma, Forever Ago probably qualifies, but special mention goes to "re: stacks," which, of all the songs on the album, is the most up-front about it.
- Hipster: The band has, unfortunately, been tagged with this label due to their support by Pitchfork Media (and the ensuing throngs of hipsters that discovered the music). The backstory about the hunting lodge didn't help.
- It Is Pronounced Tropay: "Bone Ee-vair", not "Bonn Eye-ver".
- Lonely Piano Piece: The acoustic version of "Beth/Rest."
- 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.
- Zigzagged on 22, A Million. Its dynamic range as a whole is an 8, but "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄" sits at a 4, with its brickwalled industrial drumming; "00000 Million", a tender ballad, sits at a lofty 14. Given the experimental/industrial nature of it, it's more than fitting.
- Love Nostalgia Song: The bridge of "Calgary" seems to be this. It's one of the most heart-wrenching moments on the album.
- 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."
- "Towers" might be another one.
- Lucky Charms Title: All the songs on 22, A Million, essentially. Examples include "666 ʇ" and "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠"
- Miniscule Rocking: "Lisbon, OH" and "Team" are roughly a minute long.
- New Sound Album: The Self-Titled Album, due to Vernon assembling an actual band for it and being able to afford better equipment and an actual studio.
- And the Blood Bank EP was completely different from both the Self-Titled Album and For Emma (though it did foreshadow "Beth/Rest" and 22, A Million with "Woods"), so one could say that every Bon Iver release so far has been a New Sound Album.
- 22, A Million is almost entirely electronic, incorporating rougher, glitchy production and elements of alternative R&B and ambient.
- 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."
- Not Christian Rock: Justin Vernon allegedly majored in religious studies in college, and a large portion of the artwork for 22, A Million (particularly for "33 "GOD"" and "666 ʇ") is obviously inspired by religious imagery. Despite this, Vernon is more or less an atheist.
- 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.
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: 'Fide' and 'fane' from "Perth," 'waundry' from "666," 'astuary' from "8"...
- 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."
- Rearrange the Song: "Woods" was reused as the vocals for the song "Still" by Volcano Choir, a supergroup consisting of Justin Vernon plus members of post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees.
- Refrain from Assuming: A lot, due to Non Appearing Titles. Tempered somewhat by the fact that this only applies if you can understand what he's saying in the refrain anyway.
- Somewhere, somebody thinks that "Holocene" is called "I Was Not Magnificent," or something along those lines.
- It's called "Skinny Love," not "My My My."
- It's called "The Wolves," not "What Might Have Been Lost."
- It's pretty easy to assume that "Minnesota, WI" is actually called "Never Gonna Break."
- Retraux: "Beth/Rest." It's soft rock in the style of Bruce Hornsby, and it works.
- Sampling: 22, A Million uses this extensively, especially on "33 "GOD"", which uses samples of songs by Jim Ed Brown ("Morning"), Paolo Nutini ("Iron Sky"), Lonnie Holley ("All Rendered Truth") and Sharon Van Etten ("Dsharpg").
- 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.
- This trope is used again on 22, A Million. Thanks to the Prismizer (see Auto-Tune above), Vernon is able to self-back in real-time with full polyphonic harmonization.
- Self-Titled Album: The second album, named Bon Iver, or Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
- Sensory Abuse: The distorted drums in "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠" are this.
- Siamese Twin Songs:
- "Creature Fear" and "Team."
- "Perth" and "Minnesota, WI."
- "Calgary" and "Lisbon, OH.," or "Lisbon, OH." and "Beth/Rest," depending on whether you see "Lisbon, OH." as an outro for "Calgary" or an intro for "Beth/Rest."
- Single Stanza Song: "Woods".I'm up in the woodsI'm down on my mindI'm building a stillTo slow down the time
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Enthusiastically and unashamedly on the idealistic side. This is partially what allowed the unabashed soft rock of "Beth/Rest" to work.
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.
- After being asked whether he was worried "Beth/Rest", which uses autotune for artistic purposes, would be misinterpreted as being ironic:
- 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).
- Subdued Section: The first and last verses of "Calgary."
- Title Track: A variant; For Emma, Forever Ago has "For Emma".
- Word Salad Lyrics: Vernon has a habit of building wordless melodies and then writing words that sound phonetically aesthetic with those melodies, which evokes a more subconscious feeling and also generates lots of lyrics as pretty as they are abstract.