The creation story of Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project and its seminal 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago has become the stuff of modern myth.
Vernon broke up with his girlfriend, his band broke up and he contracted glandular fever. Down on his luck, Vernon sought isolation in the form of his father’s remote hunting cabin in Eau Claire. After three months, Vernon left the cabin with what he considered a set of demos. However, after some persuasion, Vernon released these under the pseudonym Bon Iver – and For Emma…has since gone platinum.
However, this might not even be the most unbelievable part of the Bon Iver story. Two years later, Vernon released the Blood Bank EP, which caught the attention of Kanye West, who flew Vernon to Hawaii to work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy before later describing him as his ‘favourite living artist.”
The full-length follow-up to For Emma…landed in 2011, titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver, featuring a noticeably far bigger sound characterised by the addition of synths and horns. Bon Iver, Bon Iver propelled the band even further and won Vernon’s project two Grammys.
The end of the touring cycle for Bon Iver, Bon Iver was marked by uncertainty over whether the band were simply on hiatus or had split more definitely. However, in 2015 Bon Iver resurfaced with the thoroughly mesmerising 22, A Million, a radical departure born of Vernon’s recent hip-hop collaborations while never forgetting his Eau Claire folk roots, which come together to make 22, A Million a bona fide modern classic.
With three near-flawless full lengths and an underappreciated EP, the short Bon Iver discography is one of the most consistent in modern music, meaning that picking out the band’s 10 best tracks is a near-impossible task. But with no further ado, let’s attempt to do exactly that!
10. 715 – CR∑∑KS
In its just-over-2-minute runtime, 715 – CR∑∑KS dispels one of the greatest myths in music – the dad-rock ideology that auto-tune (used as a catch-all term for any vocal effects) is the antithesis of any true expression or emotion. The track is stunningly scarce – consisting of only a Vernon vocal filtered through a synthesiser developed by his sound engineer called the Messina, which allows Vernon to play a keyboard and harmonise his voice in real-time.
To step back technically – the effect is what sounds like a choir of Vernon robots which doubles as both the track’s vocal and the instrumental. Perhaps CR∑∑KS’ most astounding victory however, is how easily discernible the humanity is through the robotic vocal effects, particularly as Vernon howls “turn around now/ you’re my A-Team” at the track’s dramatic climax.
Not that it’s undeserving musically, but Flume could almost be on this list for its importance to Vernon and to the Bon Iver project alone. Despite the fact he had played in bands before, Flume was the first track which Vernon sang in his now-iconic falsetto on, and he has called this his favourite song he has ever written.
Flume personifies the isolation of the writing and recording of For Emma…, dominated by simply Vernon’s voice and an acoustic guitar; even the production feels cold and desolate. Throughout however, Vernon’s beautiful vocals feel like an old fire which illuminates and warms the icy landscape the song creates and exists in; Flume is a track where Vernon manages to say so much with so little.
Perhaps the hottest take on this list, Blindsided is a track that is criminally overlooked during discussions of Bon Iver’s discography and I honestly have no idea why. The near 6-minute track begins with a guitar motif that is somehow suspenseful and peaceful at once, complemented by a beautifully calming vocal. The track’s crescendo features at around its mid-point, where Vernon repeatedly howls “would you really rush out?” in an explosion of emotion.
At the Eaux Claires Festival in 2015, Vernon callously stated that Blindsided’s lyrics are about trying to break into a building in his hometown, and it’s easy to see that at the root of the lyrics, but as always with Bon Iver, the words are so abstract that they seem to be about everything at once. In the final verse, there is a macabre but beautiful couplet that seems to reference suicide (“there’s a pull to the flow / my feet melt the snow”), followed by a genuinely uplifting conclusion where he modifies the track’s “I am blindsided” hook to “I was blindsided”, suggesting he has moved past his trauma and abandoned these thoughts.
7. Re: Stacks
The closing track of For Emma is stunning in its simplicity. While the entirety of For Emma is a low-key affair, Re: Stacks is the record’s most subtle, featuring nothing more than Vernon’s voice and a strummed acoustic guitar. Remarkably it feels optimistic and hopeful, while not forgetting the suffering and heartbreak that has been detailed throughout the record.
The lyrics carry this worn hopefulness too, with Vernon matter-of-factly stating “everything that happens is from now on”.This is not him saying he is suddenly free of his heartbreak, as he later says “this is not the sound of a new man / or a crispy realisation,” but the optimism of Re: Stacks is Vernon leaving the cabin and moving on with his life – or, as he puts it – “it’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”
6. 00000 Million
With 22, A Million’s closing track following For Emma’s on this list, it establishes a trend: when Bon Iver write an album closer, it’s usually a bit special. 00000 Million arguably follows the most traditional song structure on 22, A Million– it is a warm, old-fashioned piano ballad where Vernon’s voice is only very subtly obscured in vocoder.
00000 Million beautifully answers all the questions and rests all the lingering doubts presented throughout 22, A Million beautifully. After exploring spiritualism throughout the record, Vernon proclaims “a word about Gnosis, it ain’t gonna buy the groceries!”
However, if every Bon Iver track has its stroke of genius then this track’s is its sample: Vernon samples a line from Fionn Regan’s Abacus – “the days have no numbers.” There could scarcely be a better lyric to put to rest the numerology and uncertainty woven throughout the record, and it’s not even Vernon’s own.
5. Heavenly Father
The only non-album or EP track on this list, Heavenly Father was released in 2014 as part of the soundtrack to Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, making it the first Bon Iver release since the self-titled album in 2011. Heavenly Father exists in the middle ground between the lush 2011 self-titled record and 2015’s glitchy 22, A Million.
The dominant instrumental is a rolling, repetitive synth line which feels grandiose enough to fit on Bon Iver, Bon Iver and the analogue drums on the track show that Bon Iver haven’t shifted as radically as they did on 22, A Million. Lyrically, this track features Vernon musing his complex relationship with God and religion, climaxing as he passionately howls “Well I know about it darling I’ve been standing here!”
4. Blood Bank
After releasing one of the most stunning debut records of the century, Bon Iver returned with the Blood Bank EP – and its title track is better than every track on the debut. Blood Bank debuts a more full-blooded Bon Iver sound, noticeably featuring an electric guitar instead of an acoustic, but Blood Bank is still a product of the same sonic landscape – the production evokes the depths of winter, and Vernon even sings of snow in the track’s lyrics.
In a contrast from the frosty production on the track, the lyrics are easily the most romantic of Vernon’s career, detailing the stages in a relationship, moving from “that secret that you know / but you don’t know how to tell” to “that secret that we know / that we don’t know how to tell / I’m in love with your honour” between the track’s 2 choruses, and following the latter a warm acoustic guitar accompanies Vernon’s lullaby refrain of “I know it well”
3. 29 #Strafford Apts
A track that Vernon accurately described as a “stoner country song,” 29 #Strafford Apts is a stunningly warm song carried by a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Vernon and Bon Iver’s drummer S. Carey’s voices are both subtly doctored in the tradition of the record, and electronic effects drift in and out, but the bones of the song are provided by the warm acoustic guitar.
The opening lyric of this song is “sharing smoke” and it is followed in the first verse by “sure as any living dream”so the lyrics feel loose and not overly grounded in reality, especially as Vernon literally creates his own word with “paramind,”but the song’s most subtly genius moment comes at the end of verse two, where two separate vocals are layered at the same time, both suggesting opposing narratives. There more natural vocal is reigned to “throw the meaning out the door / there ain’t no meaning anymore” while a higher-pitched one hopefully asks “now could you be that friend? / come and kiss me here again.”
2. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of 22, A Million’s opener to the entire record. In fact, without 22 (OVER S∞∞N) the record might not even exist. After touring the self-titled record, Vernon found himself struggling for inspiration, and this rut was ended when he sang the lyric “it might be over soon” into a sampler, which was then bastardised to make the “two, two” that soon follows.
The uncertainty of that line permeates the entire track, with almost nothing about it feeling truly concrete. The body of the song is built from just the titular sample, there are no drums, lyrics seem to drift in and out of nowhere alongside a Mahalia Jackson sample and a saxophone line. This is the sound of deep-rooted uncertainty and insecurity, but damn does it sound good.
1. Beth / Rest
Surprisingly the only song from Bon Iver, Bon Iver to make this list (sorry, Towers), Beth / Rest stunningly exemplifies what makes Bon Iver what a special band, as well as somehow being an outlier in their discography. It’s built on a massive synth line which evokes every cheesy ‘80s pop song but the emotion in Vernon’s lyrics and delivery more than qualify it.
Beth / Rest is stunning in its abstraction, with the lyrics featuring Vernon moving through a problem in a relationship – no concrete details are given, but Vernon’s passion is palpable even through lines as airy as “our love is a star / sure some hazardry”and by the time that he declares “this is axiom” it’s almost impossible not to be totally enveloped by the impossibly cheesy synth line. Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)