Even the biggest artists in the world have songs you haven’t heard. In our series Z-Sides , we shine light on those rare tracks and deep cuts that only hardcores know word for word.
The story of Justin Vernon decamping to some forgotten log cabin to write For Emma, Forever Ago is a tale that’s been so repeated it’s the indie music equivalent of Snow White or Jack and the Beanstalk. A heartbroken man armed with an acoustic guitar – and in Vernon’s instance, a case of mononucleosis and a liver infection – returns from the wilderness with an album and a touching backstory. It’s as much fairy tale as it has become commonplace in any low-level PR campaign.
What made and continues to make Vernon different, however, is his completely unrivalled ability to illuminate those quiet and reflective moments in life, documenting them with such distinct nuance it feels genuinely touching rather than prosaic and forced. Since For Emma, Forever Ago he has measurably evolved as an artist too. 2011’s self titled release Bon Iver set aside the acoustic for a more expansive sound and made room for spiritual and musical development, ultimately culminating in last year’s album 22, A Million – a near-enlightened record themed around numerology, divinity, realisation of self.
But while each record has seen Vernon grow as an artist, not just working with Bon Iver but also providing a tonal backbone to Kanye West’s magnificent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one constant has remained. Running through each of his releases is a root connecting back to that log cabin, or at the least the contemplative and spacious backdrop where it resides. Vernon makes music for winter, basically. And more specifically, his discography impacts the most during the time of the year when darkness surrounds us; as though his songs have been geared toward or created within the brief window of daylight – a key moment for seasonal reflection.
All of the above should be obvious from the music and it’s also apparent in the artwork for Bon Iver’s first two albums, both of which are frosted, snow-covered portraits. If that’s not enough the name of the group itself is derived from the French phrase bon hiver, meaning “good winter”, so there’s that too. But even before he was making music with Bon Iver (who, let's not forget, are a band), Justin Vernon had long been writing songs imbued with the atmosphere of winter. Perhaps that’s something that comes from his hometown of Wisconsin, a state that’s as close as it’s possible to get to an idealised yet still cold image of snow-covered wilderness. Or maybe he has a freezing heart. Who knows. What’s complete fact however is there are a bunch of Bon Iver – read: Justin Vernon – albums you may not have heard and absolutely should since we’re at the time of year when they’re going to sound their best.
The first of these came out in 2001, a year so long ago it may as well have belonged to the Mayans or more realistically Interscope and RCA records (the former of whom had a year earlier released the Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem and momentarily changed the cultural music landscape, while the latter released the unforgettable yet undeniably rooted in that decade album Is This It, by The Strokes). Unlike these two acts, even then Vernon’s music had a timeless quality about it – reeking slightly of Robert Pattinson Puts A Song On YouTube but still tinted with the subtle and nuanced talent we would later come to see in Bon Iver where single words speak to half a dozen different emotions.
That first record from Vernon is called Home Is – a fitting title, since it contains duets with his sister, brother and then-girlfriend Sara Emma Jensen. Next up is Self Record. Released in 2006 it features my favourite non Bon Iver release from Vernon, the track “The Whippgrass”. This track, to me, is where the sound of Bon Iver starts to form more fully – not as acoustic as his For Emma, Forever Ago release but resplendent with the same loose, repetitive guitar rhythms which carry Vernon’s voice as he strokes the canvas of his production with claritive yet open detail. Like, let’s be honest here: what does “The Whippgrass” mean? What is Vernon doing there? I don’t know exactly but I sure as hell can paint my own vivid picture and apply it in one way or another to my life. He may be speaking about the passing of time, he may be searching for the truth, he may simply be speaking about some tall grass – whatever it is, his lyrics present an image with enough space around it for the listener to come to the their own conclusion.
Lastly there’s Hazeltons, released a year before the debut Bon Iver album but – at least on the introduction track, which bears a resemblance to “Holocene” – has more in common with that group’s second release. I’m going to be honest and say I haven’t really listened to this album much but that’s the good thing about there being so much music in the world – it’s always going to be there.
What I will say however is that if you’ve made it this far then these are three “Bon Iver” albums you probably haven’t heard and would do well listening to this festive season, as well as going back into Vernon’s other work with Gayngs, Volcano Choir, Shouting Matches and the now defunct DaYarmond Edison. Or hey, if you’re reading this and you have heard them – pass it forward :)
You can find Ryan on Twitter.