Bon Iver are an American indie-folk band formed in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. In 2007, they independently released their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. As with most of Bon Iver’s back catalogue, this indie-folk masterpiece was primarily Vernon’s work, recorded when the frontman spent three months isolated in a cabin in western Wisconsin. The folk hero was recovering from glandular fever and liver infection, culminating in his frustration with songwriting and life itself.
In response to this, Vernon abandoned his old songwriting techniques and instead focused on wordless melodies, following a stream of consciousness and allowing his creativity to flow. He would later set these melodies to words, which he felt added to this subconscious feel. The record’s lyrical subjects include modern mediocrity and lost love. In addition to this, whilst isolated, Vernon would go back to basics and hunt most of his own food. Together, these elements culminated in the primal, inertia-drenched feeling of Bon Iver’s debut, which would become a trademark of the band moving forward. For Emma, Forever Ago would eventually sell platinum in America, boasting hit ‘Skinny Love’, that folk musicians love, and Bon Iver fans hate.
The chameleonic indie-folk darlings have released four albums to date. After their debut came: Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), 22, A Million (2016) and I, I (2019). They built on the themes and mode of operation from For Emma, and their folk-infused songs now included heavy choral arrangements, Vernon’s classic falsetto and horns. They are now considered a genre-defying entity, meshing elements of post-rock, chamber-pop, experimental and most recently, electronic.
Vernon and the band’s status has been confirmed by the number of collaborators they have featured on their albums, and in turn, the endless amount of features Vernon has done with other artists. Bon Iver’s most recent outing I, I, features the likes of James Blake, Aaron Dessner, Moses Sumney and Bruce Hornsby. Furthermore, Vernon has collaborated with titans such as: Kanye West, Vince Staples, Nas, Eminem and Taylor Swift.
In addition to this illustrious list of collaborators, every Bon Iver album has received widespread critical and commercial acclaim. In 2012, their sophomore LP won the Grammy Award for the Best Alternative Music Album. The follow up was also nominated for the same category, and building on this consistent success, I, I, was nominated for the Grammy Album of the Year.
In addition to the folktronica and the subconscious feel that has been key to Bon Iver’s success, there exists another element that is inherent to their mode. Vernon’s lyrics. For the most part, the overarching theme is detectable, however, fitting with the trance-like stream of consciousness, his lyrics are highly cryptic. This is where Vernon truly thrives and his audience can get lost.
Following in the steps of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, a lot of his words are made up. This is made clear when trying to say them out loud, or by just reading them. Yes, he does use lesser-known words in the English lexicon such as “modus” or “ponens”, and when defined via Google they certainly give context to the songs. However, the way he blends words, or tinkers with semantics, really encapsulates what he, and Bon Iver are about.
Noting that the name “Bon Iver”, derives from the French phrase bon hiver, meaning “good winter”, this sums up the essence of the band. A primal, almost psychogeographic project that is steeped in a hazy dream realm.
Join us then as we attempt to decipher Vernon’s best five lyrics. Trigger warning, it’s about to get deep.
Bon Iver’s Best Lyrics
5. ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T’ – 22, A Million (2016)
“Fuckified, darling don’t make love, fight it”
If 2016’s 22, A Million marked a shift in the band’s sound, ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T’ is the track that captures this move most. The album features heavy electronic and hip-hop production. It uses samples, synths and effects to create a new creative push. Many of the sounds were created and manipulated using a Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesiser, along with software designed specifically for the band by Chris Messina, dubbed the “Messina”.
Regardless of the musical departure, the lyrics are typically Vernon. The coining of the ‘70s-esque phrase “fuckified” is reminiscent of “radical” or “superfly”, and it is not hard to imagine Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron mouthing them. Furthermore, “don’t make love, fight it” is incredibly pertinent when you think of the pitfalls of love and relationships. It is almost as if Vernon is telling the listener to resist the heartbreak that love and relationships often entail and to enjoy a life free of tumult.
4. ‘Holocene’ – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)
“And at once I knew I was not magnificent”
Released as the second single from their second album, this line is equivalent to looking at the world from space. Drenched in pathos, the composition and lyrics brim with self-awareness. It is an ode to the nature of relationships, partly coined after “a dark night of the soul”. However, it is also Vernon respecting the natural, humble essence of his hometown Eau Claire.
In 2011 he said: “the title is a metaphor for when you’re not doing well. But it’s also a song about redemption and realising that you’re worth something; that you’re special and not special at the same time.”
In 2019, Vernon told the story of the line. Perhaps a little bit of the old Mary Jane influenced its existential nature: “We had a little smokey-smoke and took a walk down our road, and it was so quiet and it was like a really icy night and it was already quiet ’cause there’s not a lot of people traveling, and it was really kind of spooky night. The air’s just hanging, and we went and walked over to this bridge over I-94, and there just wasn’t a single car. There was nothing for miles and miles, and the air was hanging in such a way with the ice storm kinda going on, and it looked like this sheet of ice on the road and this glow of the distant lights of Eau Claire, and it was just—it really just came out, like at once I knew I was not magnificent, you know, and the highway aisles of ice and all that, and it was one of those moments where you’re not really sure if you’re the creator of something or not or if you’ve just been handed something to share.”
3. ‘For Emma’ – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
“With all your lies, you’re still very loveable”
Released as the second single from their debut, ‘For Emma’ is a folk-rock masterpiece. Typically Vernon, and lyrically cryptic, the song is steeped in myth. Many people claim the song is about Vernon’s ex-girlfriend Sara Emma Jensen, however, Vernon has counter-claimed: “Emma is not a person; Emma is a place that you get stuck in; Emma is a pain that you cannot erase.”
This would make sense, given what we know about Vernon’s open-ended, psychodramatic lyrics. Perhaps subconsciously inspired by his ex, the line is typical of what many of us have felt in that relationship — the one that truly fucks you up.
The lyric represents the feeling of being one of the children following The Pied Piper to their doom, dancing along the way. Just this time, the doom is emotional despair.
2. ‘Blood Bank’ – Blood Bank EP (2009)
“Then the snow started falling, we were stuck out in your car,
you were rubbing both my hands, chewing on a candy bar,
you said ‘ain’t this just like the present, to be showing up like this,
as a moon waned to crescent, we started to kiss”
The lyrics to ‘Blood Bank’ are some of Vernon’s finest. It is hard to not include the whole of the lyric sheet in this selection. The beauty of them lies in the fact they do the explaining for you, atypical of the Wisconsin native. The narrative describes the tale of a man and woman falling in love, at a blood bank, of all places. Whilst, at face value it may seem like a weird location to start a love story, Vernon is showing us that love can be found anywhere.
The music is classic early Bon Iver. It is a melancholic, climactic piece that showcases his searing talent and musical eye for accuracy. Everything about this song is as pure as the falling snow it describes. Even the Gaslight Anthem played it live.
1. ‘89’ – unreleased
“Who I have is who I carry home”
An unreleased track and only played live a handful of times; this is Vernon at his pinnacle. Whilst being short, the line is incredibly dense. Like a couple of the others on this list, it is one of his most stark. It harks back to the humble self-awareness of his hometown and carries a vital message.
It denotes the purity of Bon Iver and Vernon. It concerns the people you meet, the relationships you form, and the love and laughter that burn brightest in our lives. These are also the things that make us feel the safest and the most human.
The people you meet, the relationships you form, the love and laughter that you kindle and burn. They’re what make you. As life is and should be a balance of give and take, the lyric also tells us to look after one and other, and that we have an inherent human responsibility to do so.
It is fitting that a live recording exists of Bon Iver playing ‘89’ in their hometown. Listen below.