Indie rock cognoscenti waxed collectively rhapsodic over Bon Iver's 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago—in part because of the practically mythological circumstances surrounding its creation. In the wake of two breakups (one with a girl, another with a band), singer/songwriter Justin Vernon decamped to his father's Wisconsin cabin for the winter to lick his wounds and regroup. He captured the ensuing catharsis on tape using rudimentary musical tools … and emerged as an unlikely new folk-music folk hero for in-the-know fans.
There's a reasonably good chance most of the rest of us, however, first heard about this French-monikered act (Bon Iver is a variant on bon hiver, which literally means "good winter" or, more conversationally, "Have a good winter") when Vernon's band was crowned Best New Artist at the 2012 Grammy Awards.
As for Bon Iver's eponymous second effort—a haunting, sometimes hypnotic musical tapestry of falsetto harmonies, pedal steel strains, horns, saxophones, keyboards and acoustic-electric guitar stylings—it has earned similarly euphoric raves from music reviewers, not to mention a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. Music website Paste Magazine named Bon Iver the top album of 2011. And Pitchfork reviewer Mark Richardson said of it, "Vernon has given us a knotty record that resists easy interpretation but is no less warm or welcoming. You can feel it even as you don't completely understand it. … The music moves like a river, every bend both unpredictable and inevitable as it carves sound and emotion out of silence."
Isolated phrases almost subliminally convey optimism and hope. Album opener "Perth" repeats the phrase, "Still alive who you love." "Minnesota, WI" majors in determined sanguinity, recapitulating the line "Never gonna break" 12 times.
"Holocene" perhaps—and I do mean perhaps—tells the story of a man killed in an accident and notes how his perspective changes as he ascends above the wreckage: "And at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/Jagged vacance, thick with ice/But I could see for miles and miles."
"Holocene" also includes one of the album's two uses of the f-word. And it reminisces about a woman in a way that could be interpreted as suggestive ("3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway/Was where we learned to celebrate/Automatic bought the years you'd talk for me/That night you played me 'Lip Parade'). A bit more concrete is a man's recollection of how a woman's translucent swimsuit clung to her body on "Calgary": "Swollen orange and light let through/Your one-piece swimmer stuck to you."
Also suggestive, at least in an 18th-century Romantic poetry kind of way, are lines on "Towers" that read, "For the love, I'd fallen on/In the swampy August dawn/What a mischief you would bring, young darling/ … When you're up for it before you've grown/ … For the love, comes the burning young." That song also links drunkenness and church ("Oh, the sermons are the first to rest/Smoke on Sundays when you're drunk and dressed"). "Michicant" mentions drunkenness and passing out. A line in "Wash." could be heard as an admission of drug use ("Home/We're savage high").
One song ("Beth/Rest") takes Christ's name in vain.
Bon Iver's lyrical content is a textbook definition of impressionistic. Which is to say, brush strokes of words and phrases that hint passionately at moods and feelings but rarely with the kind of clarity or definition that enables someone to say, "Here's what this song means." A prime example (with words as spelled in the official liner notes):
"I'm tearing up, acrost your face/Move dust through the light/To fide your name/It's something fane/This is not a place/Not yet awake, I'm raised of make."
And another one: "Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posting/Sat down in the suit, fixed on up it wasn't you by finished closing."
I'm certain that each and every poetic flourish is fraught with sentiment and connotation for songwriter Justin Vernon. But, alas, he's failed to package a decoder ring with each album sold. Thus, it's a foolhardy venture to make definitive statements about very much of it. This much I can say with confidence: Bon Iver is the epitome of indie hip: beautiful, enigmatic … and occasionally profane.