It comes as a shock to think that Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was released only six years ago. The album that launched Justin Vernon into a muddled collective unconscious was notably bare and intimate, wintry landscape, inspired by the solitary Wisconsin cabin in which it was conceived. It could have been a rugged example of American frontierism, but instead “Skinny Love” became stock music for TV teenage angst. A lesser man would have left it at that or cashed in quick.
Instead, buoyed by a series of apparently unlikely collaborations with Kanye West, Vernon released a Bon Iver album that utterly did away with the lo-fi insularity of its predecessor. Bon Iver, featured a much higher level of production, instrumentation and arrangements, and songs like “Hinnom, TX” seem to indicate that West ended up having some influence upon Vernon’s sound, however indirectly.
Listening to Bon Iver in chronological order, it becomes apparent that Vernon’s recent choice to tank the project is completely logical, with “Flume” and “Beth / Rest” as bookends. “Beth / Rest” always stuck out from the sophomore album as an oddly cheesy track, with Chariots of Fire-style synths and 80s saxophone. It is an experiment in tone that we have to respect, a divisive track that harkens back to Leonard Cohen’s 80s albums, the way the soul of a song permeates through the kitsch instrumentation.
Vernon is most often associated either with the “Skinny Love” sound or that of his Kanye collaborations, yet a quick look at his back catalogue is proof not only of the breadth of genres and sounds he has explored over his career, but also the number of people he has worked with. Not quite the solitary man in a cabin we once imagined.
Pre-Bon Iver, Justin was part of DeYarmond Edison, which, after his departure, became Megafaun. It’s always interesting hearing him harmonise with other people (as opposed to himself, as in “Woods”), and one of the best examples is in the Crosby, Stills and Nashe inspired tracks of DeYarmond Edison.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find him wearing Blues Brothers glasses, playing blues-rock and singing in a manner unlike anything we’ve heard him sing before with his other-other band The Shouting Matches. It is a timely reminder that there is definitely a light sight to Vernon, and that he has always operated on the margins of what can loosely be defined “Americana”, though the term does him a disservice.
Though there is likely to be no end to Vernon’s appearances on the most disparate albums imaginable, it is perhaps Volcano Choir that promises to be the successor to Bon Iver, since Volcano Choir’s new album also shows signs of a departure in sound, echoing those from Vernon’s previous band. Unmap had a certain wintry feel, but also featured higher production than the debut Bon Iver album, as well as relying much more heavily on cyclic guitar riffs and harmonized vocals. Some of the folk elements of the debut have been eliminated from the follow-up, Repave, and replaced with a more traditional rock instrumentation and touches of the anthemic.
It is tempting to draw up a timeline for Vernon’s career, tracing some kind of linear musical evolution. But what the selection presented here proves is that these different sounds, groups and voices have largely coexisted side by side. Whether he is playing on a Blind Boys of Alabama record or singing backing vocals for Kathleen Edwards or Megafaun, the evidence is that, Bon Iver or no Bon Iver, Justin Vernon will be around for quite some time.