Bon Iver, “Calgary”

Videos by American Songwriter

Often songwriters fall into two camps. The first, narrative songwriters, generally tell stories linearly with great images. The second group – and I hesitate to call them ‘lyrical’ – let words and ideas flow through them more freely and sort out the details later. (Maybe a third group, who some would consider the best, do both at the same time.)

Like Paul Simon – who has described his songwriting process as “backward,” writing music first and then coming up with lyrics, which often involves throwing a ball against a wall – and other “automatic” writers, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon let’s his subconscious be the guide.

On “Calgary,” from Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album, good diction and grammar mean almost nothing, while words and cadence mean everything. In an interview, Vernon says he respects narrative songwriters, but his style comes from “allowing the words and the sounds to dictate where [he’s] headed.”

But just because Bon Iver gives over control to non-linear, often nonsensical musings, it doesn’t necessarily make his lyrics great. (Surely, some listeners won’t see much merit in such a loose style.) But, take a leap of faith – or what poets call a suspension of disbelief – and couple it with his hymn-like arrangements and ageless falsetto, and you’ll find it’s quite easy to follow along.

All across Bon Iver, Vernon has built a dreamscape for himself and the listener. “[The lyrics] come as a sound,” he says, “and then I sort of realize what’s happening around that and build it up, around that sort of dreamland, I guess you could say.”

Vernon plays a Joycean game at times too, mangling and purposefully confusing language and song titles. Is “Michicant” a negation of Michigan or a secret language of that state? The Valley of Hinnom, known to ancient Jerusalem, is transported to Texas?

In fact, Vernon admits he’s never even been to Calgary. And for those that come to worship at Bon Iver’s temple of soft synths and dreamlike verse, maybe that’s a good thing.


don’t you cherish me to sleep
never keep your eyelids clipped
hold me for the pops and clicks
I was only for the father’s crib

hair, old, long along
your neck onto your shoulder blades
always keep that message taped
cross your breasts you won’t erase
I was only for your very space

hip, under nothing
propped up by your other one, face ‘way from the sun
just have to keep a dialogue
teach our bodies: haunt the cause
I was only trying to spell a loss

joy, it’s all founded
pincher with the skin inside
you pinned me with your black sphere eyes
you know that all the rope’s untied
I was only for to die beside

so itʼs storming on the lake
little waves our bodies break

there’s a fire going out,
but there’s really nothing to the south

swollen orange and light let through
your one piece swimmer stuck to you

sold, I’m Ever
open ears and open eyes
wake up to your starboard bride
who goes in and then stays inside
oh the demons come, they can subside

Written by Justin Vernon

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Mike Errico