Justin Vernon is one of, if not, my favourite musicians. If you don’t know, he’s an Indie Rock/ Folk Rock singer & musician. He’s probably most known as the front man of the band, Bon Iver. He hails from Wisconsin which I think is a really important factor in the context of his music. The landscape undoubtedly comes through in his songs. He has collaborated with many other musicians, artists and singers and is featured on numerous albums. These albums cross many genres and reflexes Justin’s love for music. Here follows just some of his accreditations:
Justin continues to be a member of the band Volcano Choir. It is one of his more experimental projects. Their first album, Unmap (2009), had a very minimalist and ambient feel to it. The tracks are dreamlike and there is any emphasis placed on the instrumentation, although Justin does sing in a number of the tracks. The beautiful instrumentation creates a reflective, worldly quality in the songs. The bells in “Mbira In The Morass” are quite calming but it’s the track “Husks and Shells” that really steals the show for me. The acoustic guitar with the choir, who are almost chanting, create a calming piece.
Justin released his first solo album, Home Is (2001), under the name J.D. Vernon. This album was Blues in nature although it had some Indie Folk elements. In the scope of his work, these were quite personal songs. As opposed to his later projects in bands, the sounds here are rawer. There isn’t that combined sound of instruments which he would later establish in Bon Iver. Here, it’s mainly the acoustic guitar that is accompanying him.
I listened to this work after listening to Bon Iver. He’s so impassioned and spirited here. Because it’s mainly just him and an acoustic guitar, it shines a spotlight on him. Through production and working towards a fuller sound, his later works are very different form his early solo work. There is also the fact that blues can very much be up tempo, and in order to get that kind of rustic, blues tone, he really needed to get into it. He enunciates the lyrics with a blues style.
I adore where Justin came from in terms of his early work. It’s great to hear him play a different type of music. “Leave It Alone” has an infectious beat and the various instruments create a great sound: the guitar riffs and that twang sound, and of course the trombone that plays at the bridge. My personal favourite is “Trainyard Blues.” A straight up blues song. What I love about it most is the harmonica. It’s one of my favourite instruments to listen to. I always look out for it in Americana, Blues or Folk Rock. I don’t even know why, I think it’s just that you can let rip on it and go crazy. In this song, it blends wonderfully with the guitar and Justin’s voice. There’s something quite attractive about a blues song about the railway with a harmonica. Great stuff!
A few years later he released more solo albums, but this time simply as Justin Vernon. He released Self Record in 2005 followed by Hazelton in 2006. These albums saw a departure from the blues style of his previous solo work. Lyrically, the songs are very personal and there’s still that raw emotion in his voice. However, the songs are more down tempo and arguably sadder. He does explore all lot with new sounds. He does have some instrumental songs thrown in there aswell with a a great listen.
From Self Record, “We Will Never Die” is a brilliant instrumental piece over 10 minutes long. It’s quite worldly and trombone really makes it. Great relaxing song. “Sides” is a song that breaks my heart every time. I tear up whenever I listen to it. It’s the lyrics that really get to me. It’s a similar message to that of “Take Me To Church” by Hoozier, except it came 9 years before the latter. It’s basically a song about homosexuality and persecution and how the church turns its back on them when they need help. When he sings “When they hurt me” and “when they beat me,” he puts so much emotion and pain into it. When the speaker goes looking for help in the local priest he says “you just hung your head and told me it was the door I needed to be going to.” It’s such a heartbreaking song. Just reading the lyrics really impacts on you.
From Hazelton, “Easy” features Justin singing and playing the piano which is a brilliant combination. It’s a really beautiful song. You could lie down and just listen to it. Another instrumental song is “Song For A Lover” which is arguably one of the greatest songs by Justin. It’s so reflective and filled with sorrow. Just riffs on an acoustic guitar with him singing. It’s such a sad song, especially in the second part of the song after the silence. He really just lets go and its almost like he’s lamenting a loss.
Finally, we arrive at the famous Bon Iver. This is where most know Justin from. It’s where I first found him anyway back in 2008. Bon Iver are an indie rock band from Wisconsin, lead by Justin. They’re a band really close to my heart. They’re really important to me in terms of their sound, inspiration, and just to relax.
Their first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was released in 2007. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It literally changed my life and opened me up to new music. As a said earlier, Wisconsin is important in the context of Justin’s music. The proof is in this album. A little background detail. After Justin had broken up with his ex, he retreated to a cabin in a forest in Wisconsin. There he lived alone for 3 months and wrote the material for this album. I know it’s very Thoreau – Walden Pond-ish. But seriously, that isolation sparks creativity and I seriously respect him for that. As for the music, you can actually hear the sounds of the forests in the music. Not, as in, audio of the forest, but interpretations through instruments. It’s mind blowing. You can really hear it in “The Wolves (Act I and II).” You get the little drum beats throughout which is like branches moving or sounds of the forest. The guitar strums are like a fire. As the song climaxes it’s like wolves howling. There’s a kind of choir chanting found in songs like “Lump Sum” and “Creature Fear” which is like the wind. Just the sounds, the instrumentation and the sheer work that went into the album is the reason why I love this band.
Following on a year from their debut album, they released an EP entitled, Blood Bank, in 2009. There are 4 tracks on the EP but all are quite substantial. It’s described as warm and summery. “Babys” and “Blood Bank” are both great tracks. They former has a piano playing throughout as Justin sings about how “summer comes to multiply.” The latter is story about going to a carnival. They’re both quite warm and active as opposed to the autumnal/wintry theme of For Emma, Forever Ago. “Woods” is a bit weird as it has auto tune, quite a lot actually. At first I was shocked because it’s the polar opposite of Indie Rock. Over time, I grew to appreciate the song. But it’s “Beach Baby” which I love. It’s so calming and immediately transports me to the beach and seaside. The guitar riffs have a sort of Hawaiian feel to them towards the end. I just want to lie down when I listen to it. It’s one of my favourite Bon Iver songs.
In 2011, they released their second album entitled, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The majority of the songs are named after places. Although very much folk rock, this album feels more produced than their previous album. They introduced new sounds and instruments, and in certain places there’s a sort of 80’s feel to the songs, especially in the track “Best/ Rest.” I think it’s because of the saxophone. There also tends to be more electric guitar in this album as opposed to the acoustic in their previous. It has a much larger sound and is very cleanly produced I found. I like the drums and trumpets in “Perth,” they’re like a march. And then it goes mad towards the bridge. “Halocene” is nice, it’s similar to their older stuff. “Towers” has great instrumentation. I love the overall sound of it, the trumpets, guitars, drums, everything. The album artwork, by Gregory Euclide, has become one of my favourite pieces of art.The piece itself is a 3D art piece. It’s so detailed.
Justin also did a mashup of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” & “Nick of Time” which is a beautiful, timeless piece full of emotion. He contributed an original song to the soundtrack for the 2014 film Wish I Was Here. The song “Heavenly Father” has this continuous vocal beat throughout it. I love the lines “I’ve just been up here for God damn years,” “I know about it darling, I’ve been standing here,” and “I was never sure how much of you I could let in.”
His collaborations extend far and wide. Some of these include Anais Mitchell, Gayngs, Colin Stetson, Kanye West and St. Vincent. It’s clear from all his work how great a musician he is. It is no wonder that he is one of my favourites.
Picking my favourites songs is extremely difficult, but if I had to choose a top 10 they’d be as follows:
10. Bon Iver – Halocene.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011).
9. Bon Iver – Michicant.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011).
8. J.D. Vernon – Trainyard Blues.
Home Is (2001).
7. Bon Iver – The Wolves (Act I & II).
For Emma, Forever Ago (2008).
6. Bon Iver – Lump Sum.
For Emma, Forever Ago (2008).
5. Justin Vernon – Sides.
Self Record (2005).
4. Justin Vernon – Song For A Lover Of Long Ago.
3. Bon Iver – Heavenly Father.
Wish I Was Here Soundtrack (2014).
2. Bon Iver – I Can’t Make You Love Me/ Nick Of Time.
1. Bon Iver – Beach Baby.
Blood Bank (2009).