By Ilene Frances
The 2011 self-titled record by Bon Iver is one of the few records that I return to numerous times throughout any given year. The heavenly hymns flow so gracefully from one song to the next and tell a story of resurgence from long winter (as described in the debut record For Emma, Forever Ago) and finding hope and comfort in new realizations about life. In relation to its predecessor For Emma, Forever Ago, this record has a feeling of hopefulness and uplifting spirits.
Pinned as the group’s “spring” record (Sharples, 2019), it is definitely a fitting name for a record that includes songs with titles such as “Wash.” and “Holocene”; Holocene was a geologic time period that began roughly ten thousand years ago just after the last glacial ice age (I’ll be honest, I had not a single clue what exactly Holocene meant, so I thought I would include the definition for some reinforcement *wink*). Spring comes with hope and change, but not until the depressing, reflecting time of winter has occurred. Just like the order of the records and the stories they tell, spring (Bon Iver) comes after winter (For Emma, Forever Ago) has passed.
There are a few key elements to the record that make it as stunning and gorgeous as it is: the cryptic lyrics, experimental sounds, cover art, and Vernon’s gosh darn amazing voice (yes, you bet I said gosh darn). All of these elements combined transport any listener to the heavenly and haunting world that is Bon Iver; the most beautiful paradox.
One could ask any random group of people who they think is the best songwriter ever, and I bet that at least one person would immediately blurt out these two words: “Justin Vernon!”; I know I would! For years now, Vernon has never failed to whip out a set of cryptic poems that millions can marvel at and try to make meaning of. Each song is like its own piece of art, and each person interprets and receives it in a different way. This record does not fail in fulfilling this; it goes above and beyond in creating space for questioning meaning.
A song that has particularly stuck with me since my discovery of this record is the tune “Wash.”. To me, these lyrics are the deepest and hold the most meaning in my personal life. At the first chorus of the song, Vernon sings:
I… I’m growing like the quickening hues
I… I’m telling darkness from lines on you
A combined annotation on the Genius page for this song defines these lines perfectly: “As he discovers the world around him, hues light up… he develops an imagination. He is growing as a person and in turn life is opening up to him. Although he’s seeing new hues and ‘colors’ in life, it also comes with the negative sides like ‘darkness’. The lines represent wrinkles and blemishes on this person face, coming from old age, which in-turn comes with stress and the problems of life. Seeing this makes Vernon aware of ‘darkness’, which represents the bad parts of life” (@Yeezus_LaFlare, @palacelight) This song is about Vernon growing and realizing the good things, but also the bad things; the things that people say, believe, and do that cannot be altered. The reference of “Claire” (referring to his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin) adds personal symbolism to it and creates a rawness behind the lyrics; this is a piece of Vernon’s narrative. It all comes down to his disillusionment, but acceptance of the changes that come with life, acceptance of himself and situation (his heartache described in the debut record For Emma, Forever Ago).
The line that always gets me is “We finally cry”. To me, this is the break; the realization. This is where the “wash” part comes in: “wash” is what happens after a long winter. The melted snow, green landscapes, but also, a new perspective. We cry, but we are “washing”, cleansing ourselves from the heartache and depression of winter to come out with a new outlook of hope and acceptance. Also, not going to lie, this is one of the best songs to cry to (I have no shame in admitting this)… sometimes you’ve just gotta cry; life is tough! With the meaning of acceptance and realizations that come along with this song, it makes it the perfect song to reflect upon, cry to, and move forward from.
Are you still hanging in with me here? We’re kind of getting into “deep chats with friends at three in the morning” type of vibes here, but that’s just how profound and heavy these songs really are! Not to mention, there are 40+ songs under the belt of Bon Iver, and I only went into slight detail of just one song… so much meaning involved. This is something the average songwriter might not be capable of accomplishing, but hey! Justin Vernon is anything but average.
Something this record provides that is different from other indie folk ones (and from For Emma, Forever Ago) is that the group experiments with sounds ranging across a largely diverse group of instrumentation. From a soft electric guitar entrance and build up to drums in “Perth”, to the beautiful rising and falling strings featured in “Wash.”, this record features so many sounds and instruments that one would not expect to hear on what is considered an indie folk record. Organs, synthesizers, saxophone solos, brass sections, strings, guitars galore, and so much more! This record sets the bar high when it comes to experimentation in new sounds and songs in the music world. Even now, I listen to these songs and find a new sound or element that I had not noticed before. It just goes to show how many hidden gems are surrounding this record, especially in terms of musicality; it provides a sound experience, like closing your eyes to imagine the sounds type of experience (at least it is for me).
The song that is the coolest when it comes to experimentation with sound is without a doubt “Michicant”. Being someone native to Michigan and growing up near the shores of Lake Michigan, the sounds in this tune resonate with me. The beginning of the song starts with four quick notes in one ear and then the muted plucking of a guitar in the other ear (side note: this song is definitely meant to be listened to with headphones at least once). The first time hearing this song, I had never (and still have never) heard any song open like this one does; it creates anticipation for the first verse to make its entrance. The sound that the muted guitar creates almost sounds like walking through puddles, or near a body of water, which would make sense (considering the title). As the tune goes along, new elements join the piece and are layered together to create a gradual build up, but there is a “pit stop” along the way.
Around the 1:38 minute mark, the song slows down into this lyric-absent, instrumental soundscape. The sounds in this section to me can only be described as fragmented crashing waves and something that was once frozen being thawed, like melting snow on a spring day; it sounds like time is passing. Such a piece of work provides abstract meanings for abstract sounds, but that is what makes it so amazing. As a listener, I am challenged to think about it and what it means, but relate these sounds back to something nostalgic, something personal. For me, it’s the crashing waves of Lake Michigan and the sound of winter thawing in the spring; full circle back to the main ideas of this record. That is deep.
It would be a crime not to mention the beautifully stunning cover art for the record, courtesy of artist Gregory Euclide. I am completely guilty of doing nothing for an hour but staring and admiring at the cover art for this record; I think it would be strange not to do exactly that! To this day, this cover art proves to be my favorite of all time. It matches perfectly with the songs and feeling of the record: a scene that has a feeling of melting snow and springtime.
In an interview with Pitchfork, the materials behind Euclide’s piece are revealed: “the original piece– made specifically for the record– is a surreal swirl of paint, melted snow, pine cones, and more. By including unorthodox, found elements in his work, Euclide offers art that not only depicts nature but emulates its cycle of transformation, too” (Dombal, 2011). When asked about what themes Euclide and Vernon wanted to convey through the piece, Euclide says, “Our life philosophies are pretty similar. He wanted to deal with transformation a lot. If the last record was about loss, then this one was going to be about birth. And a lot of my work deals with growth and decay; there’s this lush green stuff, but it also feels like it’s breaking down” (Dombal, 2011). The cover art along with the record itself work together in creating a sense of transformation; things decaying, so others can grow.
He posts his most current artwork on his Instagram account (@gregory_euclide) and his website (www.gregoryeuclide.com), and I always stop in my tracks to admire the beauty and time that goes into each of his uniquely wondrous pieces.
Justin Vernon’s rare, soulful voice calls to be heard in this record. It features vocals ranging from quiet falsetto to deep, heavy baritone and bass sounds. With wavering dynamics along with these vocals, it creates its own tale and emphasis. In an article from The New Yorker, Vernon’s voice is described as “one of the most recognizable instruments in indie music” (Hsu, 2016), which is something I could not agree with more. It is so recognizable and unique in its own way that it has become its own instrument at this point.
The power of Vernon’s voice is really showcased in the closing song of the record “Beth/Rest”; a song with predominantly low register vocals and adding splashes of color in the form of falsetto tones. Paired with organ chords, Vernon’s voice sounds almost like a preacher giving a church sermon. In this case, a sermon about an ending (or death), but one with hope, not fear. Vernon provides something different vocally from For Emma, Forever Ago: he adds more power vocally with deeper ranges not featured in the debut record.
After careful contemplation and analysis of this record, I still love it with all of my heart. Nothing compares to a piece that makes you think and reflect, but also provides great beauty and a personal story to tell. I am not one of those fans that just likes one record by Bon Iver; I am a lifetime lover of this group and all that they create. For Emma, Forever Ago, Blood Bank, Bon Iver, 22, A Million, and the new addition i,i; I love them all. However, I was compelled to dig deeper into this one in particular. I didn’t really question my intuition, instead I ran with this idea and explored a deeper level of the songs that I was already fondly attached to. After taking a deeper dive, I’ve emerged with even more appreciation for this forever-beautiful piece of art. If you have not experienced this record yet, take an hour to listen to this flowing masterpiece in full; it is something to be appreciated on all levels and elements. You might just find that it speaks to your soul as well…
Holocene definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene
“Wash.” lyrics: https://genius.com/Bon-iver-wash-lyrics
Bon Iver – Bon Iver LP: https://www.gregoryeuclide.com/portfolio/bon-iver/
Warmth Gave Rise To Our Falling: https://www.gregoryeuclide.com/portfolio/warmth-gave-rise-to-our-falling/
Hsu, 2016: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/bon-ivers-new-voice“Beth/Rest” meaning: https://www.songfacts.com/facts/bon-iver/beth-rest