It’s 2008: The airwaves are full of Katy Perry, Leona Lewis and Coldplay. You’re in the back of your parents’ car, headphones plugged into your iPod Touch – you’re trying hard to zone out.
You put on Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Something in you clicks. Or maybe it’s 2011, and you’re just starting to develop your sense of music. You hear Birdy’s cover of “Skinny Love” and think to yourself, “What else sounds like that?”
To track the evolution of Bon Iver’s sound is an impossible feat. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is so private, like a peek into lead singer Justin Vernon’s most personal thoughts.
The instrumentals sound far away – like they were recorded in a church (reverb and all) then immediately released. These songs aren’t meant for us. To Vernon, we are the void that he’s shouting into.
The album starts in the surreal stratosphere that only the song “Flume” can create and ends with the similarly acoustic “Re: Stacks.” The final 40 seconds are quiet. You can hear him putting his guitar back. You’re finishing this album together.
In 2009 he released the “Blood Bank” EP. This four-track record is immediately more somber. The instrumentals sound closer.
The closing track, “Woods,” is the first track by Bon Iver that clearly heavily experiments with electronics. Vernon starts off acapella but auto-tuned, “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind / I’m building a still / To slow down the time.” The song repeats that same phrase, each time adding a new auto-tuned layer.
It’s a song that exemplifies how vulnerable Vernon can be without a lot of lyrics — he’s manufactured serenity with his chords, nearly putting you into the snowy car on the EP's cover art.
Bon Iver’s third release came in 2011. The self-titled album is 10 songs, and much heavier instrumentally than anything he put out prior. Electric guitar, heavy drums, banjo and strings.
“Hinnom, TX” is where we see the full potential of an electric, complex Bon Iver. We get ambient noise, horns, piano and synths. But we won’t hear this seed of sound come to fruition until 2016.
“22, A Million” and “i,i” are saliently different from the very first albums. It isn’t so much the style change that shocks you, but the level of vulnerability, the level of complexity in the music and its cohesiveness.
It’s hard to pick a standout track from “22, A Million” because they emote something different. It starts with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” one of the singles from this album. Vernon is using samples, something he’s never outwardly done before.
There is an omnipresence of sound. He says, “And then I draw an ear on you / So I can speak into the silence.” It feels spiritual. It connects you to emotions that aren’t yours. He uses the instrumentation as a tool to encapsulate you in sound, to feel his frustration.
“00000 Million” is a clear recall to the songs of Vernon’s past. With slight effects on his voice, it’s just Vernon, a piano and a sample that says, “Where the days have no numbers.” The song feels like a reflection on the album itself, a reprieve.
“i,i” starts off with just 30 seconds of jarring chords and background noise. It’s previewing the music for the next track, “iMi.” The rhythm feels like ocean waves at first, breaking when you least expect it.
“We” sounds like the antithesis to a typical Bon Iver song. If you took his classic falsetto vocals out, no one would ever believe that it was Vernon’s. It starts nasty — almost wrathful — with heavy bass and chanting background vocals.
Something that Bon Iver has always done well, but does especially well on this album, is maneuver through songs seamlessly. So many songs on this album pick up energy fast, and then release it in the last 40 seconds, almost as if Vernon needs an emotional rest just as much as we do.
“Naeem” is a prime example of this, with heavy piano and yelled lyrics, it ends with a soft choir. There’s not one song on this album that feels inconsistent, a hard feat considering the intricacies of his lyricism and new style.
Bon Iver’s most recent albums feel like a flawless mix of electronic and acoustic, vulnerability and guardedness. His unabashed expertise in style changes, both instrumentally and lyrically, is what has made him a touchstone for indie music for over a decade.