If anyone regularly watches Jools Holland on the BBC, then you might remember a performer who, with a creaky Sears catalogue guitar, blew us all away with a painfully honest and heartfelt performance of his songSkinny Love. That man was Justin Vernon, founder of musical project Bon Iver.
Now much more of a group, Bon Iver require no introduction to lovers of folk music. Justin himself is well known as the man who retreated to his father's cabin in the wilderness of Wisconsin to recover from both illness and a broken heart. During his time there he attempted to 'excavate' his feelings; to 'dig it out and see what it is...get it to the oxygen where it can burn away'. The resulting music became the highly praised album For Emma, Forever Ago. Though it was initially released by Justin independently, it quickly garnered a lot of attention and was picked up by a label and formally released in February 2008.
The band's name, Bon Iver, relates to a French phrase 'bon hiver', translated as 'good winter'. The image this name projects accurately reflects the atmosphere of the music, particularly the first album. The surroundings in which it was recorded, and the way they affected Justin's headspace, were vital and play a big part in the sound of the songs.
On For Emma, Justin reflects on a troublesome period of his life and claims that it's the most honest thing he has ever made, but don't let that make you think the language is plain, over-direct or un-crafted in any way. The lyrics, in coherence to the music, are fragmented and woven beautifully into poetic verse that is both cryptic and alluring.
Inspired at an early age by the likes of John Prine, Bon Iver's music and song-writing has now developed and grown after their first album. Justin himself was philosophical in discussing the transition and the way he handled the pressure that comes with creating an acclaimed first album: 'records should be records of what's happening and records of events, I should feel no pressure to re-create anything'. Since then he has also worked on numerous small projects with the likes of James Blake, who drew an early influence from Bon Iver's style.
The self titled second album certainly didn't 're-create' anything. The single Towers is the closest it comes to correspondence with For Emma. The album includes a wider range of instruments and involved a larger band; a way of working that Justin enjoyed in his earlier days in multiple bands. Luscious helpings of reverb, mixed into sparse jangling melodies give a sense of distance and space; a contrast to the first album. Where For Emma's music is intimately transmitted through a beaten up microphone, on this record it's as if the music has travelled great lengths across epic Alaskan landscapes to reach our ears.
Bon Iver's self titled album was released in 2011 and the band are currently touring. They played Latitude this summer and arrive at London's Wembley Arena on Thursday 8th November. Though it may seem a while away, the tickets are highly in demand and it's necessary to book soon to guarantee a seat.
The set is sure to combine great music from both albums as well as the Blood Bank EP from 2009; a prefect, bite-sized introduction for those looking to explore Justin's exquisite song craftsmanship. Although Mr. Vernon has been branded a 'poster boy for the anti-Grammy debate', the band caused what was deemed an 'upset' when they won the award earlier this year ahead of favourite Nicki Menaj. In his acceptance speech, Justin stated that he found the award difficult to accept since he only did it 'for the inherent reward of making songs' and that is ultimately what sets Bon Iver apart from many other artists.
Kris Kristofferson once said that John Prine's songs were so good that someone was going to 'have to break his thumbs'. I would hate to think what someone might do to Justin Vernon.