Maybe Justin Vernon used his nom de project, Bon Iver, as the title of his new album because “Deep Thoughts” would have sounded too much like an old “Saturday Night Live” bit. But Vernon, the indie-folk auteur whose beautifully layered, falsetto-laden musings have been likened to the creations of similarly dualistic Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, really does have some serious existentialist stuff going on. Whether you can pick it out of his cubist lyrics is the challenge. But like a post-modern painter or a master potter, his new work is as much about form as function. “Linear” is certainly not the term you’d apply to his musical thought process, however deep the results may be.
Vernon, whose second album comes four years after his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, and just after his 30th birthday, exemplifies what might be termed the new-breed folkie. His release is titled Bon Iver, as if to reinforce the existence of what he calls a collective he “curates.” Like other new-breeders who pick non-egotistical alternatives to their own names, suggesting the presence of a band even if no other players are involved, he says it’s not a euphemism for a solo artist, and not really a band, either. “It’s a developing entity,” he explains.
Another new-breeder trait is the use of words for sculptural value; they’re also unafraid of molding songs via studio wizardry, yet they try to uphold the purity of the indie ethos. And they worship Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but don’t think twice about mixing it up with unusual partners such as Kanye West (as Vernon did on West’s heavily hyped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; they also duetted at South By Southwest and Vernon says they’ll work together again).
They also don’t go for the terminally hip look or attitude; they’re far more likely to be heavily bearded, slightly camera-shy types rather than gel-spiked attention whores. Would Bon Iver interrupt Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, as West famously did? Not on your Wisconsin-raised, Midwestern-mannered, Lake Wobegon life.
Vernon, who built a studio in a former veterinary practice just a few miles from the Eau Claire house he grew up in, explains the effect of location on his art. “Musically, I’m informed by who I am as a person. And who I am as a person is directly influenced by my environment,” he says. “And my environment up here, it’s just Midwestern. It’s slower, it seems, like it maybe isn’t subjected to as much media onslaught of the industry we work in, and I prefer that.
“I think it can be real dangerous to label music as an industry because that’s not where it comes from initially,” he continues. “It comes from a personal and spiritual searching. I’m most connected to myself when I’m out here, away from the coast.”
Vernon, who composed his first album during a winter spent alone in his dad’s remote northern Wisconsin cabin – “bon iver” is taken from the French phrase for “good winter” – says being in the country helps him stay removed from the pressure put on many artists to become entertainers.