Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Solitude never really suited Justin Vernon. As the fable goes, Vernon quit his longtime band, DeYarmond Edison, and split for his parents’ hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin, where he wrote and recorded his first falsetto masterpiece, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. But even before fame came, Vernon was steadily amassing a band, not only to animate those forlorn missives he’d made solo, but to give his more expansive ideas about big drums, plangent noise, and ineffable harmony a chance to exist. Onstage, For Emma, Forever Ago quickly outgrew its origin story of isolation. For his self-titled 2011 follow-up album, Vernon invited a dream team of collaborators to April Base, the studio compound he’d built just miles from his childhood home in the Wisconsin countryside. The cast was small but staggering, with his early live band of Sean Carey and Mike Noyce augmented by saxophonists Colin Stetson and Mike Lewis, second drummer Matt McCaughan, and pedal-steel hero Greg Leisz, among others. Together, they made postmodern art-rock symphonies, a space where granular synthesis and saxophone choirs animated Vernon’s still-life portraits as widescreen epics. Vernon turns the rarest of sophomore tricks here, using images and experiences from his ascent to stardom as lyrical fodder without venting about the frustrations of celebrity. The opening track, “Perth,” emerged after Vernon filmed a music video with a friend of Heath Ledger as word spread of the actor’s death; “Still alive, who you love,” he solemnly purrs over its dagger-sharp riff, a cavalcade of horns and drums mounted around him. Lifting a melody from a song he cut while still in his old band, “Holocene” confronts a string of sacred memories—hearing a favorite tune for the first time, hotboxing a room during a holiday with his brother—and reckons with our collective insignificance in light of what he knows now. A Bruce Hornsby devotional, the closing track “Beth/Rest” testifies to the bittersweet ways our professional success does not ensure personal happiness. There is a tortured and tender wistfulness to these songs, with Vernon, then nearing 30, looking back on the times of his life with both sigh and smile. For Emma, Forever Ago prompted a wave of pitchy imitators, with hordes of guys and gals with guitars hoping to mine its sylvan aesthetic. But Bon Iver proclaimed without apology that Vernon had no intentions of sticking around to lead that typically hirsute scene—that he was looking for new ways to dig into old feelings of love, loss, and their own ever-renewing cocktail.

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