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(Credit: Graham Tolbert & Crystal Quinn)

Revisiting Bon Iver’s rare Bob Dylan cover

When Bon Iver first arrived on the scene with ‘Skinny Love’, he was greeted by a slew of comparisons to folk greats. But beyond the comparisons was the question on every beanie-wearing folk renaissance hipster was: Who broke this Geography teachers’ heart? Why? And where can we send our fan mail?

The Parthenon of break-up songs is gilded in gold and glossed with an endless stream of sacrificial tears, millions of songs rock up and request entry every year and nearly all of them are turned away. ‘Skinny Love’ shuffled over and took its place next to Blonde on Blonde

Justin Vernon’s heartfelt performance could conjure spirits in a vacuum and give goosebumps to a blade of grass and it’s a spiritual oblivion that still proves infectious, no matter how many covers and endless overplays have threatened to dethrone it, much like Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ that people have attempted the butcher a million times over and yet it persists as a broken-man classic.

In more recent times, however, Bon Iver’s style has drifted from the classic stripped-back folk introspective stylings and ventured into auto-tune experimentation. It is this avant-garde studio invention that led Kanye West to remark: “I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye.”

However, back in 2011 for a concert in Portland, Oregon, he remained stylistically classical, with an ensemble of musicians at his disposal but very few gimmicks, and he took this opportunity to pay tribute to the great Bob Dylan with a stunning rendition of ‘With God on Our Side’. 

Taken from Dylan’s landmark 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’, the famed iconoclast tackles the notion of American nationalism by trying to reconcile the wars and atrocities committed in the name of his proud country. The track judiciously wades through a stream of historical context before asking the prescient question: “In the nineteen-sixties came the Vietnam War / Can somebody tell me what we’re fighting for?”

Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver reinvents the melody to build towards a cacophonous crescendo, but stays true to the mandate of the original, which Dylan proclaims is key to a successful cover of his work. With horns billowing amid a swirl of gentle instrumentation Vernon imbues the track with a bit of gutsy gusto without detracting from the hard-hitting sentiment of the original, and what’s more, his pipes are certainly on rousing form, not quite the sand and glue of Dylan, but gruff enough to spark all the same. 

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