These days, Bon Iver is everywhere. The mythology of the name and the back story freshly minted in glossy print of numerous publications, all rehashing the crazy spiral to fame that Justin Vernon has experienced over the course of the past two years.
By now, the beginnings of Bon Iver, a clever bastardization of bon hiver — French for good winter — is the stuff of legend in indie music circles. The subplot is iconic and novel; man breaks up with band and girlfriend, loses money to online poker, develops a bout of mononucleosis and retreats back home to the Upper Midwest and a shack in the frozen woods of rural Eau Claire County. Man writes about break up while main-lining maple syrup, chopping wood and fending for survival from a deer stand.
Funny, how some things pick up steam. Vernon had indeed retreated to his father’s hunting cabin and while he disappeared in the midst of winter’s firm grips in the thick of Wisconsin northern hardwoods and aspen to rediscover himself, parts of his first breakout album, For Emma, Forever Ago, had already begun. And the beautifully haunting falsetto that greeted the world with ‘Emma’s’ release had already been discovered back in North Carolina. The cabin had working electricity, plumbing and computer access to play episodes of Northern Exposure on DVD, an episode of which his namesake was discovered.
It just sounds way more sexy to compare Vernon’s path to indie stardom to the ethos of a Jon Krakauer novel, the bearded mystery of the Unabomber or the mystique and escapism of Walden.
After a successful world tour and collaboration with Kanye West, things are a lot different for Justin Vernon. He is a lot more popular. His first album sold over 300,000 copies and today his face and oft-distorted, achingly romantic backwoods story continue to gain traction in a plethora of American magazine publications from Rolling Stone to Billboard and the cover of upcoming Spin in anticipation of his much anticipated sophomore release, Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
These days when he is not traveling on tour, Vernon lives in remote Fall Creek, Wisconsin in an old veterinary clinic that has been refurbished into a home and recording studio shared with girlfriend and Canadian alt-country singer Kathleen Edwards (whom will tour with Bon Iver in Europe). The home pays homage to Wisconsin — its left-handed mitten silhouette is found throughout, and the rural vibe is reflected by piles of chopped firewood and a recording studio that sits comfortably atop a middle school basketball court procured from a Craigslist posting in St. Paul.
Vernon made Edwards his muse on the track, “Calgary” long before meeting her. Now half her upcoming album has been recorded in the same old vet clinic, Vernon playing bass and producing.
While For Emma was so much about Vernon and that time and place or emotional rebirth in the north woods, Bon Iver, Bon Iver represents a stark shift and thoughtfully branded movement in new directions. The stark, naked catharsis of ‘Emma,’ replaced with a full sound bathed in pedal steel and horns and anchored by titles all rooted in place — “Calgary,” the ode to Edwards; “Perth,” a song about the passing of Heath Ledger; and “Towers” a dormitory at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
The final track “Beth / Rest” delves into a distinctly foreign realm, paying homage to the brass of Bruce Hornsby and giving hope that Vernon can explore further genres that have peaked into his repertoire and his live performances ranging from true country to gospel.