A beginner's guide to Bon Iver

Ahead of their headline slot at Forbidden Fruit festival, we look at the music of Justin Vernon and co

A beginner's guide to Bon Iver

Image: Daniel DeSlover/Zuma Press/PA Images

It takes a lot to impress Kanye West - and admittedly, it's usually himself doing the impressing

However, one man who certainly impacted on him both as a person and an artist is Justin Vernon of indie darlings Bon Iver. 

“I go out and perform Hold My Liquor [from West’s 2013 album ‘Yeezus’] with Justin Vernon, who is my favourite living artist," West told Annie Mac of his Glastonbury performance with the songwriter. "I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye."

His influence is so great that that the rapper has taken a leaf out of Vernon's book when it comes to writing and recording, hiding himself away on a mountain in Wyoming, as Vernon previously did something similar for his record 'For Emma, Forever Ago'.

But who is the critically adored, falsetto-folk-to-rock-pop Bon Iver? And where does one begin when it comes to their back catalogue?

Start off with... '22, A Million'

After a couple of quiet years, Vernon and his bandmates returned last year with '22, A Million' - an expansive, electronic-driven arc in the Bon Iver narrative.

It's important to start here because of how wildly different it is to its predecessors. The band had established themselves as folksy introverts who had no problem banging out a somber banger, tear-stained piano keys and all. '22, A Million' proved that they could still do that, even through non-traditional methods.

It's an affecting record - Vernon's oblique lyricism and scrapbook-style song-writing lend an intensity and pacing to its lovelorn track list. Vocal affects, synths and loops dominate the soundscape - but this is the furthest thing from a floor-filler.

The lyrics are largely indecipherable, but what can be understood is that this is a frank look inwards into Vernon's growing disillusionment from faith and love.

Must listen: 715 - CRΣΣKS, 666ʇ


Fall in love with... 'For Emma, Forever Ago'

The breakup album to end all breakup albums, a broken Vernon retreated to a cabin in the woods following the end of his relationship and his band.

'For Emma, Forever Ago' - with its warm textures and his cooing falsetto - gave us one of the most (unfortunately) covered songs of the noughties, Skinny Love. Vernon creates an environment of palpable isolation with such a sense of dejection.

It's worth noting that none of Bon Iver's back catalogue makes for intensely gleeful listening, but 'For Emma...' is particularly heavy-going. Consider this before diving in - and put down the whiskey, please.

Must listen: Skinny Love, Wisconsin 


Fly through... 'Bon Iver, Bon Iver'

When they're strong on this album, they're really strong - Holocene is shimmering, brass-garnished poetry; Wash. distinctive piano chords are unforgettable.

It is important to consider the band's sophomore album in term of their journey as artists, certainly. Slowly but surely, the group dropped instrument by instrument into their arsenal. Had this album not happened, it's hard how they would have produced '22, A Million'.

But ultimately, there's something about the band's second album that makes it neither as interesting or breath-taking as the others. 

Must listen: Holocene, Wash.


Honourable mentions

  • Blood Bank from the 'Blood Bank' EP - an unmistakable warmth delivered with some of the band's fnest story-telling
  • Bon Iver's B-side cover of I Can't Make You Love Me/Nick Of Time

Bon Iver plays Forbidden Fruit Festival on the grounds of the Irish Museum Of Modern Art, The Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin on June 5th. Tickets are on sale for €59.50 and can be purchased here.