Justin Vernon’s Noteworthy Activity Between Bon Iver Albums

Justin Vernon playing 22, A Million

The over five-year wait between Bon Iver albums didn’t feel nearly as long as it could have. This is probably because the band’s creative force, Justin Vernon, has kept himself pretty busy since 2011. He was involved in two separate side projects that both put out fantastic records. The past two summers, he’s founded and curated a music festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Bon Iver played both years at the fest, memorably revealing new material each time.

So when rumors started swirling that Bon Iver had an album coming, my initial reaction wasn’t well, finally. It was more well, that’s a welcome surprise. Back in 2012, Vernon had said the Bon Iver project was “winding it down,” presumably for a long break. With the expectation that no new music was coming, no one was hyping themselves up for another Bon Iver album anytime soon. Plus, Vernon was actually quite active during the intervening years.

This is in stark contrast to the wait for Frank Ocean’s latest album, which, to fervent fans, felt like approximately four decades as opposed to the actual four years since 2012’s masterful Channel Orange. Ocean, a notorious recluse, had teased a new album multiple times, only to keep fans in the dark for years. He rarely made appearances in public and only released a few unfinished songs on his Tumblr (in addition to a few features for other artists). Finally, this past August Ocean returned with not one, but TWO albums, the visual album Endless and his third record Blonde. Ocean came through (and then some), but the four-plus year delay was hell for rabid and impatient fans.

Despite an extra year of hiatus, Bon Iver’s time away didn’t feel the same way. With this in mind and as a kind of companion post to my recent article on their new album, I wanted to run through some of Vernon’s stellar work since Bon Iver, Bon Iver was released in 2011.

The Shouting Matches

After years of constructing gorgeous musical dioramas of profound melancholy and serenity, it was a joy to hear Vernon crack open a craft beer with his buddies and churn out a bunch of bluesy garage-rock tunes. In April 2013, Vernon, drummer Brian Moen, and Phil Cook of Megafaun,  released Grownass Man under the band name The Shouting Matches.

It’s far from groundbreaking; there’s no grand artistic statement here, but it’s fun as all get out. It felt like Vernon was taking a breath and kicking back after Bon Iver’s Grammy-winning whirlwind success. His haunting falsetto was mostly replaced by a relaxed baritone. While Grownass Man wasn’t going to end up on many “Best Of” year-end music lists, it did have its moments. “Gallup, NM” is a 5 and a half minute standout that demands repeated listens.

Volcano Choir

Just a few months later, Vernon would release the second album under his other side project, Volcano Choir. In 2009, the members of Collections of Colonies of Bees (what a mouthful) and Vernon linked up for Unmap, an exceedingly experimental indie rock record. Then, four years later came Repave, a much more accessible, arena-ready effort.

Many have claimed it’s essentially the third Bon Iver album, which isn’t totally off base considering the breathtaking melodies and Vernon’s prominent vocals. Still, each song is either too straightforwardly anthemic or just off-kilter enough that they throw you off the Bon Iver scent.

Over three years later, Repave is immensely underrated. Songs like “Byegone” and “Comrade” are remarkably epic, with crashing drums and cavernous guitars. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to go stare at nature for awhile (shouts to the mesmerizing album artwork). These could almost be U2 jams if Bono’s voice were laid over them. Plus, it’s the perfect length. At eight tracks, it arrests you for just long enough before things turn stale. It’s still a wonder to me how more people, especially Bon Iver fans, don’t know about this album.

(feat. Bon Iver)

It wasn’t just side project bands that kept Vernon busy, but his collaborations with other high profile artists as well. Most notably, Mr. West. Vernon was a key contributor to Kanye’s 2010 maximalist opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so it was no surprise when he brought Vernon back in for 2013’s Yeezus. The bleak, hyper-aggressive posturing of that album might not seem a natural fit for the “Skinny Love” guy, but Vernon has a writing credit on three of Yeezus‘ tracks, proving Kanye and Vernon a formidable team yet again.

Another critically acclaimed collaborator was James Blake. The two have worked together for years, but on Blake’s The Colour in Anything, released earlier this year, Vernon is one of only two co-writers on the album (The other? Frank Ocean). Vernon’s name can be found credited on three songs, including a feature on the slow-burner “I Need a Forest Fire”.

Heavenly Father

Come 2014, we were treated to the first new Bon Iver track in three years. “Heavenly Father” was created for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded film. It’s a buzzing, captivating few minutes of music that stands on its own, even without the context of a full album. It was a welcome reminder that Bon Iver could still grab your attention out of nowhere.

Bon Iver Awakens

In the summer of 2015, at his own music festival , Eaux Claires, Vernon awoke the Bon Iver machine for a live performance. In it, they performed two previously unheard songs, stoking speculation that a new record was on the way. The first, which I’ve watched roughly 3,482 times on YouTube, would become “666 ʇ”, the sixth track on 22, A Million. The other, featuring the sister folk trio, The Staves, is unaccounted for on the new album. Hopefully it sees the light of day somewhere down the road.

It turned out we would have to wait a full year for more new tunes. At next year’s Eaux Claires fest, Bon Iver returned and played 22, A Million in its entirety. With the studio version coming out on September 30th, our (not so terrible) wait is over.

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Why Bon Iver’s Innovative “22, A Million” Still Feels Like Bon Iver

Bon Iver's album 22, A Million

If you queued up the new Bon Iver songs expecting the serene, quiet folk that catapulted them to indie stardom five-plus years ago, you were probably a bit disoriented upon first listen.

“22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the first of three tracks released before the new album, 22, A Million, drops on September 30th, begins with chipmunk-pitched vocals and no acoustic guitar on the scene. It’s a jarring way for the band to return after five years, to say the least. They are going for fresh sounds and ideas about what a song can be — and subverting their fans’ expectations while they do it. However, despite this Kid A-esque turn, these new songs still somehow feel 100% like the Bon Iver we’ve come to know.

First of all, what’s the deal with these insane, wingding-looking song titles? Numerology and symbols are clearly a main theme of 22, A Million. Each song title features a number and the album cover is cluttered with various, seemingly random symbols: a rainbow, a pyramid, a stuck-out tongue, several crucifixes, an upside down chair. In the letter accompanying the album announcement, Trever Hagen, a friend and collaborator, says “22” represents lead singer and creative mastermind Justin Vernon, while “A Million” represents the rest of the world.

This emphasis on numbers and symbols is new for Vernon, but the effort to find his place in the world, the mission to figure out What It All Means is decidedly not. Since Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, when Vernon shut himself away in a Wisconsin cabin for three frigid winter months, he has been attempting to reach for connection with others and the world. (As far as indie origin stories go, it doesn’t get much better than “depressed singer-songwriter emerges from wintry isolation with beautiful melancholy tunes”, does it?). Despite the inherent personal intimacy in Vernon’s music, it has always reached for empathy. As Hagen’s letter says, music is “a pathway to understanding.”

This sentiment is, of course, baked into the lyrical content of the new tunes. Regardless of its strangeness, Vernon’s writing style remains close to what it was in the first two Bon Iver records. In 22, A Million, he continues to mix the banal and everyday with the abstract and esoteric. On “33 ‘GOD'” (33 was Jesus’ age at his death, the song also runs 3 minutes, 33 seconds) he smashes together the line “We find God and religions to” with “Staying at the Ace Hotel”. On “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, lyrics like “So as I’m standing at the station” share real estate with “There isn’t ceiling in our garden”. The second track on the album, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”, features lines like “Unorphaned in our northern lights” and, my personal favorite, “Fuckified”.

The result are songs that play like sacred memories we don’t have. Just like Bon Iver Bon Iver‘s “Holocene”, where we hear about “That night you played me ‘Lip Parade'”, a memory of Vernon’s that comes right before the soupy obscurity of “Not the needle, nor the thread, the lost decree”, concrete elements of nostalgia are mashed together with mystifying lyrical content. However, it’s the anthemic universal lines that shine the brightest in Bon Iver’s music. On “Holocene”, it’s the refrain, “…And at once I knew I was not magnificent”, where we can all cosign that feeling of insignificance in the face of something far greater than ourselves. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins with “Where you gonna look for confirmation?”, a question of where we all turn for validation and fulfillment.

While that classic Bon Iver lyrical presence remains, the new soundscapes on these tracks are certainly pushing the envelope. Straightforward acoustic folk will probably not be found much on 22, A Million. This is scattered, unconventional, and unpredictable music that doesn’t sound like much else out there today. There’s more electronic influence and way less guitars and drums.

You can kind of hear the Kanye West impact (Vernon has collaborated with Kanye on multiple occasions), especially on the charging, aggressive (for Bon Iver, that is), and enigmatic Yeezus-inspired “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”. Another likely area of Kanye’s influence is Bon Iver’s use of samples. While sampling has been popular in hip-hop for decades, you don’t hear it much in other genres, especially as liberally as Bon Iver have sampled other songs here. Unsurprisingly, the choices are wide-ranging, including a country artist from the 50s, a gospel group from the 80s, and a contemporary Scottish singer-songwriter. The most high-profile sampled artist is Stevie Nicks, but Vernon didn’t choose “Edge of Seventeen,” no, he decided to sample from his “favorite YouTube video of all time,” an old clip of her warming up backstage. These samples don’t overwhelm the songs, they simply add texture on the peripheral edges. Either way, it feels like a legitimately innovative move from an indie folk artist.

And yet, even with the fresh sound and all the samples, you can nevertheless hear the recognizable thread of For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver at work. Of course, let’s not forget, there was significant change between Bon Iver’s first and second albums. After the stripped-down success of For Emma, Vernon wrapped his original sound in layers of gorgeous instrumentation for the second record, adding delicate saxophones, trumpets, and strings. Auto-Tune was even used to unusually excellent effect, so Bon Iver is no stranger to innovation and artistic growth. 

On these new tracks, that Bon Iver flavor remains. Lovely piano keys form the base of “33 ‘GOD’,” while what sounds like a banjo enters around the one-minute mark. Early on in “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” a patiently plucked guitar emerges to guide us into the album. Then, thrillingly, a sax solo comes in out of nowhere around the middle of the song. Of course, Vernon’s vocals are at the forefront as usual — that beautifully distinct falsetto, the powerful low register, and the Auto-Tune-enhanced vocal magic; it’s all there.

Right now, it’s uncertain how fans (especially the casual ones) will receive 22, A Million. At first, the new material tends to sound disjointed and colder than the previous two albums. It’s only after a few listens that the songs start to connect and reveal their rewards. The melodies begin to take hold once you get a feel for where the band is going. It’s definitely an exhilarating new direction, but once you listen a little closer, it’s still Bon Iver, after all.