The Underrated Beauty of Bon Iver
Many people have heard of Bon Iver, but few have listened to their music. The American indie folk band rose to popularity in 2008 with their self-titled album, which was named after the founder Justin Vernon’s abandoned hunting cabin, Emma, in Wisconsin. While it has been eight years since the release of this debut album, the band continues to grow a large fan base and produce beautiful music, including their latest album i,i that was released in 2019.
Justin Vernon’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago broke onto music scene in a big way and continues to be one of most influential albums in recent years. The mesmerizing album combines gorgeous melodies with more melancholy lyrics than you can shake a stick at. But, where many people stop listening is about four songs into it.
Skinny Love is probably one of most underrated songs on that album. A lot of people will call it boring, or say something else disparaging about it, when it is actually one of most beautiful songs you’ll hear from any band, ever. It’s an exercise in restraint, much like the rest of For Emma. It has a simple melody and instrumentation, but there are so many layers to it that make it what it is: an epic masterpiece. If you haven’t listened to Skinny Love all the way through yet, go do so now; if you have, listen again.
I’ve been a fan of Bon Iver since Skinny Love, but my favorite album is actually 22, A Million. Unlike previous albums, where Vernon relied on a single instrument to carry each song, 22, A Million gives each music instrument an equal voice.
The result is a rich and moving sound that is difficult to describe. Whether it’s melodic or discordant, every track just feels right. The lyrics take some getting used to and Vernon’s falsetto can be off-putting at first, but as you get caught up in the music, you quickly understand why it’s become such a hit with critics and listeners alike. In fact, I think Bon Iver is one of the most underrated bands out there today. While their new work has yet to match their debut for popularity, Bon Iver has managed to carve out a unique place for themselves in modern music by creating something entirely new—something all their own.
Justin Vernon is credited as having taken indie folk into its most experimental form, and although his new works have fallen short of his earlier effort he was successful in creating a trend that many have followed. His 2011 self-titled album Bon Iver won critical acclaim including three Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, Best Alternative Music Album, and Album of the Year, making him one of few artists to win both honors separately within only two years from their work’s release. Bon Iver’s influences are wide ranging from jazz legend Chet Baker, to Pink Floyd, to Sufjan Stevens‘ electronic experimentation seen on Seven Swans. The album cover even features artwork based on Sufjan’s Alaskan folk project Songs For Christmas.
I,I, Bon Iver’s fourth album, is my second favorite. This statement is sacrilege in some circles; Justin Vernon’s self-titled debut was a globally acclaimed success and for good reason. There’s no denying it was one of 2019’s best albums; when heard from start to finish, it paints a vivid sonic picture of heartbreak and loneliness, with beautiful soft sounds meshing perfectly with dark lyrics to match.
For many listeners, I,I has become iconic—think back to your first listening experience if you’re unsure what I mean—and as such Vernon is viewed by many fans and critics alike as a master songwriter at work. Even though I can see why people like his earlier work better, there are aspects of his latest album that should be celebrated. It may not be on par with his previous works, but its lush instrumentation gives me chills every time I listen to it.
The production value is high and stands out among other indie folk bands; instead of being restrained and minimalistic like his earlier works, Bon Iver takes advantage of space without becoming too busy or losing its core sound.
The orchestral flourishes make I Won’t sound grandiose while still staying true to their indie roots; they didn’t need full orchestra or vocals in French to create something new or exciting. The song embodying has everything great about the band: hauntingly emotional lyrics sung in an angelic falsetto, interesting chord progressions, layered sounds, and impressive arrangements.
One thing that makes me love Bon Iver so much is how consistently strong all of their songs are; each one builds off another until you have an album full of music worthy of critical acclaim.
When we talk about a band like Bon Iver, we must first acknowledge that there are people who do not understand their appeal. To be honest, it’s baffling how someone could listen to 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and not love every single second of it. What could someone possibly hear in those three minutes and forty-four seconds that makes them dislike Justin Vernon’s epic masterpiece?
Luckily for us, many others have been able to figure out exactly what it is they love about Justin Vernon, his music and his indie-folk band from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. For example, in an interview with Exclaim! Magazine, The National’s Aaron Dessner said, “I think [Bon Iver] just made some really special music that speaks to me on a very deep level. It sounds simple but it’s actually quite complex. It’s beautiful stuff.”
This quote does an excellent job at saying something positive about one of our main points: Bon Iver has some beautiful songs that deserve more recognition than they get.
There are many similarities between For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver’s follow-up record, 2011’s self-titled album. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of love songs that was penned in winter.
This album further develops Vernon’s signature ethereal sound by combining his slow, soulful crooning with layers upon layers of snowy ambiance. If you can think back to those first few minutes when you listened to For Emma or have been too preoccupied thinking about Justin Bieber to notice what they sound like live (hint: they sound like an indie pop orchestra), then you know that both albums will give you goosebumps.
So, why do people hate on Bon Iver? Why do people call them overrated? The answer lies within their genre classification—or lack thereof. It is easy to categorize music into genres because it helps us understand what we are listening to; however, music doesn’t always fit neatly into one category or another.
When we listen to something unfamiliar, our brains try to make sense of it by comparing it to something else that we already know and understand. In other words, if we don’t already have a name for something new, our brain makes one up for us based on how similar something sounds compared to things we’ve heard before.
What makes Bon Iver so special is how they put together their individual talents and influences to create a sound that truly stands out. Their lyrics are as ambiguous as poetry and make for an interesting read, but it’s their music that really takes your breath away. The combination of vocals, drums, guitar, bass, and piano creates a unique sound you can’t find anywhere else; adding in soft percussion instruments only adds to its effect.
In just five years they have recorded three studio albums and several live albums—which brings us to another special aspect of Bon Iver: their ability to perform. From intimate shows at small venues to sold-out concerts at large arenas, Bon Iver has consistently given one-of-kind performances that leave audiences wanting more.
As one of today’s biggest bands, it’s hard to imagine how a band like Bon Iver has managed to stay underrated for so long. But their success is largely attributed to their humble beginnings, and their desire to avoid mainstream limelight. Without any hype or buzz, their music has been able to reach millions through word-of-mouth alone.
This factor also contributes to its success; each album remains as fresh and relevant as it was when first released. Though they may not be on your radar yet, Bon Iver deserves your attention—and hopefully soon you’ll agree that they are truly one of today’s most underrated bands.
The album art featured here was sourced from Wikipedia articles, and is used solely to illustrate the albums under fair use.
Bon Ivers Good Winter | Concert Review: Bon Iver | Bon Iver 2022 Tour Dates (US) | An Album a Week (8): For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver | Noted Bon Iver Fan Phoebe Bridgers Wrote A Touching Essay For The ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ Anniversary Reissue | Vinyl Vibes: Bon Iver | The Man Who Wrote The Lyrics That Defined My Generation | Bon Iver
I was vaguely aware of Bon Iver’s music before I met you, but since we met, you’ve definitely greatly increased my appreciation of their discography. 🙂
I was introduced to Bon Iver when I was at a soap shop in Maine with my ex-girlfriend. The shop had the song Blood Bank playing, and it was the first time I had ever heard of Bon Iver. The shop owner was kind enough to tell me the title and artist, and when I returned home, I started listening to their music on YouTube.
PS – I love you!