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For Folk’s Sake: How “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” Changed The Future Of Indie Folk Ten Years Ago

Despite all popular belief, the idea of folk music is still very much alive, constantly reimagined and shaped anew by artists from every corner of the globe. In this ongoing column we’d like to peek behind the curtains of the heritage of a genre. Celebrating the decennial jubilee of Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore release, NBHAP author Andreas decided to dig up his thoughts on the pioneering achievement of Justin Vernon’s acclaimed masterpiece.

Years before Bon Iver’s chief creative Justin Vernon would identify the seasonal nature of the project’s legacy towards the release of the latest i,i, the notion of shifting creative cycles was long established by the solo act turned multi-collaborative group and goes as far back as to the breathtaking sophomore record Bon Iver, Bon Iver from 2011, now heading into its first decade of existence. Following the wintery, low-key folk of the 2008 debut, the widely celebrated and mystically charged For Emma, Forever Ago, the successor did mark a turning of the tides, as it steered away from the folk-fused and mournful musings into territories more orchestral, vast and indeed monumental, and yet still reminiscing a melancholic and impressionistic spirit.

Bon Iver, Bon Iver in itself carries the spirit of departures and taking pathways into open spaces and it exercises these notions not only by means of its broadened sonic layers, but on symbolic levels as well. Had the mystified solitary cabin up in North Carolina served as creative womb for the pieces on For Emma, revolving around lost love and quests of existence, the 2011 songs are literally working themselves from place to place, actual and imaginary, knotting together subjective shapes of memory and desire with sentimental contours of space and an ever-present temporal flow of it all.

Dressing up the skeleton

For many folk purists out there (yes, that includes me as well), For Emma, Forever Ago was pure gold in a number of ways. Not only did the record explore the emotional roots of an artist coming to terms with his own world fallen to shreds, it also presented an affectionate voice surrounded by the very scaffold that one needs to head into folk territory: the sound of an acoustic guitar. On top of that, For Emma did have a vage enough story of origin that would soon be blown up into a full creation myth, declaring Justin Vernon a postmodern Henry David Thoreau, a figure to re-romanticise modern folk music and one to blow life into the idea of indie again.

Now, as convenient as it would have been to just create a second For Emma, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a somewhat radical move away from the skeletal structure of its predecessor: Dressed up in a broader, more ambient sound and now a full band affair, the hermetic acoustic folk turns into some sort of majestic chamber pop, flinging a multi-textured robe of electrified guitars, drums, horns, and synths elements onto the austere body of Emma. It is not so much the turn inward to analyse your grieving sorrows, but much more an expansive voyage out to dig in to the emotions hidden in spaces all around you.

Justin Vernon has stepped out of the woods.

The Voyage Out

2011 was still the time when one wouldn’t have to get lost in long philosophical discussions over the cryptic edge to a Bon Iver song title (looking at you, 22, A Million!). Each song is linked to the name of a place, (or at least has lyrical connections to some sort of space) and hereby seems apt to be located. Yet, as it still is a Justin Vernon record, these fixations are quickly overturned and shaped into a bigger metaphor of sorts, mixing the appearance of actual places like Perth, Calgary or Lisbon, OH with spots that sound real, but are not, like Michicant or Hinnom, TX, or evoking a whole geologic epoch with the outstanding Holocene.

“All these place names have a story or an emblem for a feeling or notion”, Justin Vernon has shared once and the way he knits through these references remains a spectacular listening experience, even ten years later: Be it in the solemn and flaring build-up of opener Perth, the atmospheric, yet pressing character of Minnesota, WI, the balladesque and bluesy notion of Michicant, or the ever so piano pop-fused closing Beth/Rest, this album captures the notion of entering the void of the world around you and turning into a different individual in the process, as if the sheer manifestation of sound would turn you inside out and leave a trace hard to be erased. There is the idea of a progress in all of these songs speaking of that quality. The way they slowly build up and at times end up in a bursting crest – just listen to Calgary – is astonishing and nearly amounts to a physical experience itself.

“Bon Iver, Bon Iver is about the feeling of the flow and the experience of opening up sonic and emotional spaces that echo the permeating waves the record is able to create.”

A Sentimental Journey

From the remote cabin in the woods of For Emma all across the imaginary North American landscape, Bon Iver, Bon Iver not just evokes the idea of vacant spaces from a sonic perspective, but further situates the singing subject into a scheme grander than his own grieving heart. Still the sensitive voice, yet this time surrounded by spaces of the natural order (“So it’s storming on the lake / Little waves our bodies break”, Calgary), crossed with the fervent desire to be one with his surroundings, most vividly exposed in Holocene’s powerful pre-chorus line:

“And at once I knew 
I was not magnificent” 

(Bon Iver – Holocene)

Though stylistically appearing as erratic, disjointed fragments of consciousness, the poetic setting Bon Iver create is something one may call sublime, as it places the overwhelmed individual in relation to the grand scenery he finds himself in. The quality of these songs is that they succeed in shaping an impressionistic inner landscape, that takes into account myriad sensations and sets them into a naturalistic frame. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is fusing the self with the existing world around. What a stunning way of shaking off For Emma’s cabin fever, right?

Aiming and it sunk and we were drunk and we had fleshed it out
Nose up in the globes, you never know if you are passing out
No, it wasn’t maiden-up, the falling or the faded luck, why?
Hung up in the ivory, both were climbing for a finer cause
Love can hardly leave the room
With your heart

(Bon Iver – Michicant)

And what’s folk about all that?

Though Bon Iver, Bon Iver does not yet disguise the project’s folkish roots like its successor 22, A Million would attempt five years later, the songs on here significantly point the way out of becoming a pure genre band and find a way to step out of the cliché of a bearded guy on an acoustic guitar writing about heartbreak. “I don’t find inspiration by just sitting down with a guitar anymore”, Vernon stated at the time in a Pitchfork interview, instead looking for other sounds that would match what he wanted to express.

In all its atmospheric intensity and the way it fuses folk roots with an ambient pop sound, this record opens up pathways to levels of musical ingenuity and shows how folk music can interact with elements of electronica, jazz, autotune and ambient sounds, leaving a dent on the creative environment that can barely be overestimated. Following Bon Iver’s formative release, one can hardly overlook the wave of acts that headed into similar sonic territory, just by recognising artists like Ásgeir, RY X, Justin’s band collaborator S. Carey or Haux as part of a rising desire for a sound on the threshold between folk-rooted sensibilities and a transgressive spectrum of sound. While the impact of this record still remains, Bon Iver has yet moved on to even stranger lands and shifting tides, for all we know, already plotting the next creative rush to inaugurate another season.

Check out all editions of Andreas’ For Folk’s Sake series right here.