Bon Iver: Good Winter

Over the winter holidays, I took the opportunity to revisit Good Winter, Mark Beaumont's excellent 2013 book about Bon Iver, one of my favourite artists. 

Bon Iver started as essentially the work of Justin Vernon, but it quickly became a fluid, collaborative group project. To date, there are four Bon Iver albums. They were released in 2008 (For Emma, Forever Ago), 2011 (Bon Iver), 2016 (22, A Million) and 2019 (i,i).

Many books about music are able to draw upon a long discography and history. That Good Winter was written only five years after the release of Bon Iver's debut reflects the early appreciation of that record's status as some kind of modern classic. Justin Vernon and Bon Iver have had a massive impact on 21st-century music, including through collaborations with major artists, notably Kanye West. Crucially, there was also a good story attached to the music. In outline, it goes something like this: Justin Vernon, in his mid-twenties, was suffering from a general malaise relating to heartbreak, creative differences and ill health. After spending a year in North Carolina with the band DeYarmond Eddison (whose 2005 record Silent Signs is available on streaming services), Vernon retreated to Wisconsin for the winter of 2006. He stayed alone in his parents' hunting cabin, set picturesquely in snowy woods. Using some basic equipment, he recorded an album which was then released on MySpace and 500 CDs. After Pitchfork reviewed what was an essentially unknown album in October 2007, interest ballooned. Mark Beaumont describes how an enthusiastic Ed Horrox, head of A&R at 4AD Records in London, made the trek to Justin's home town of Eau Claire so that he could put forward his case for signing the album, having heard a stream of it online. The record was indeed snapped up by 4AD, as well as US label Jagjaguwar. The album, called For Emma, Forever Ago, was followed by a successful self-titled album which confirmed Bon Iver's mainstream status. 

Much of Good Winter is about the years leading up to that cabin retreat. While For Emma, Forever Ago appeared on the scene as a debut, it was the realisation of ideas and skills developed over many years. There are great stories about life in Wisconsin and the bubbling, creative musical scenes that developed in the region during the period. Beaumont shines a spotlight on some fantastic deep cuts from this pre-Bon Iver period. Fans will love the insight the book provides on these early works. Many of them can now be found floating around on YouTube. A track called 'Hazelton', for instance, is a particular gem. It has intriguing melodic similarities to 'Holocene', a fan favourite from the second Bon Iver album. 

My interest in revisiting this book this winter lies in Mark Beaumont's exploration of the theme of isolation in his account of the cabin sessions. All these years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, isolation has become a key social issue and phenomenon. In 2006, it had different connotations. Without access to streaming services, social media and video calling, boredom was more inescapable. Beaumont suggests that this focused Vernon on the essentials of the music he wanted to make. In a more practical sense, it was during the cabin sessions that his hard-drive died, causing old demos to vanish. It seems like boredom sped up a process of shedding overt musical influences, paving the way for a genuinely original alt.folk sound.

By contrast, the third and fourth Bon Iver albums were much more collaborative. Producers, musicians and numerous guests were invited to jam, often at Vernon's own April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (as documented in a mini-documentary about the Staves' time there). Musically, another original sound emerged. Vernon's soulful falsetto was put through textured auto-tuning and layered on a chaotic bed of different noises, many of which were achieved without traditional instrumentation. To get a crackling sound effect, for example, April Base studio manager Chris Messina has described how they would record something on a compact cassette, rip it open and crumble the tape, and then put it back in (Source: Sound on Sound). 

Before heading to the cabin in the winter of 2006, Vernon had spent a year in North Carolina with the band DeYarmond Edison. Beaumont vividly describes how they would put on lengthy, free-form avant-garde jam sessions, with Justin drawing on his college education in jazz. Musical differences began to creep in, however, which contributed to the retreat. These differences included Vernon's growing interest in crafting songs that were more tight, more comfortable. He expressed these interests most clearly in the songs of the first two Bon Iver albums. The third and fourth Bon Iver records, it seems, involved something of a return to the free-form, improvisatory mode which had characterised his pre-Bon Iver years.

The release of album #3 in 2016, with its radical new sound and look, was an exciting, startling moment. A sea change which came seemingly out of nowhere. A tendency and ability to adopt new musical styles is one of the most exciting qualities an artist can have - we were always spoiled on that front by David Bowie, of course, right up until his final album Blackstar. Yet Good Winter provides fascinating context to Bon Iver's musical arc, showing where it came from. 

The future trajectory of Bon Iver remains to be seen and heard. Speaking on the Broken Record podcast in December 2019, Vernon told host Rick Rubin: 

"I've stepped farther and farther and farther back from the chief position of making the records and its funny, after making these four records, I'm feeling like maybe a return to just hanging out on my own for a year or something just to get back to that place" 

Curiously, this statement came right on the eve of the global pandemic.

It is not really known to what extent this aim has played out, musically speaking. Bon Iver's releases in 2020 featured two charity singles ('PDLIF' and 'AUTC') which have a fairly similar sound to the fourth album, extending the warm, inventive sound of album #4. There are hints that these two songs belong to a fifth album, with the phrase 'Chapter 5' included on the artwork. But it's always been difficult to predict these things with Bon Iver, with many signs and symbols appearing on their album art and promotional materials. 

In 2021, except for a Bon Iver song on the Don't Look Up soundtrack, Justin Vernon's output has been side-projects, including collaborations with Taylor Swift and work with Aaron Dessner on a new Big Red Machine album.

In 2022 we can look forward to a 10th anniversary reissue of the Bon Iver Bon Iver LP and the group will be busy touring stadiums across the US and Europe (a tour pushed back from 2020), which may give fans clues about what's to come.

It will be interesting to see whether a fifth Bon Iver album will be a return to the isolated music-making of For Emma; a continuation of those collaborative sessions; or something else entirely. After all, the pandemic has thrown conventions out the window, with songs assembled over video calls and 'in the cloud'. 

Perhaps the more interesting question is whether Justin Vernon's comment on the Broken Record podcast would mean stripping back the experimental electronics and diverse instrumentation, returning to a folky sound, or if we should be thinking more about resuming greater creative control and independence when it comes to conceiving songs. Then there is also the question of emotional and lyrical content, which always has a big impact on tone and style. 

Whatever happens, I for one look forward to any new Bon Iver music. Good Winter was a great read for the winter holidays, offering fascinating insight into the music as well as the people and places involved. It is available in paperback here or wherever you get books! Additional Mark Beaumont books include Jay-Z: The King of America and Out of This World: The Story of Muse

I have put together a Spotify playlist containing some of my favourite Bon Iver and Justin Vernon songs, roughly in chronological order, which you can find here: 

- Greg Morton

Leave a comment