Concerts

In My Memory: Celebrating Ten Years of Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon Photo by Graham Tolbert
On a musical landscape that seems preoccupied with looking backward at all times, the word "nostalgia" gets thrown around a lot. With disco tingeing many of today's chart-topping pop songs and artists like Taylor Swift exploring previous work through their own meta-narratives, it has been interesting to see this yearning for the past manifest itself in different ways.

The tenth-anniversary reissue of indie-folk band Bon Iver's sophomore record, the aptly titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver, presents yet another deviation from this trend. Considering the album's focus on time and location  — and the congruence between both — you could argue that this has always been its biggest draw.

"Records can take you to where you were — who you were — when you first listened to them," fellow musician Phoebe Bridgers wrote in an introductory essay for the album's reissue, which the band is celebrating with a tour that includes a stop at the FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park on Friday, April 15. In fact, one of the most striking things about Bon Iver, Bon Iver is how it managed to evoke its themes of nostalgia even while sounding new-age at the time of its release.

Take, for example, the album's second single, "Holocene." The intro, composed of two unsynchronized sets of finger-picked guitars, is disorienting but has a pleasant, lulling effect. You barely notice that the track's swelling instrumentals get louder and more invasive throughout the five-and-a-half-minute tune, making the its back half such an emotional powerhouse. By the end, "Holocene" sounds like an entirely different song. It's grown from something minimalist to something far grander, transporting the listener on that same journey.
On the heels of 2008's stripped-down For Emma, Forever Ago and the 2009 EP Blood Bank, 2012's Bon Iver, Bon Iver marked a new musical direction for the band, with frontman Justin Vernon telling Rolling Stone he'd brought in new collaborators to "change the voice" of the project and his role as its leader. This included introducing a broader set of instruments into a lo-fi recording style.

This variety of instrumental textures is present throughout the record. Whereas "Hinnom, TX" takes an experimental tack, "Perth" and "Towers" develop into fuller, more orchestral sounds similar to "Holocene." Meanwhile, the textured melodies of "Calgary," "Lisbon, OH," and "Beth/Rest" can be classified as chamber pop.

As evidenced by the tracklist, settings are also essential to the storytelling on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Each song is titled after a different place, with each place having a special connection to Vernon and his collaborators. The history behind "Perth" is particularly interesting. According to Vernon, the idea for the song came to him while filming the music video for "Wolves" in 2008. The shoot was interrupted when the video's director, Matt Amato, received the devastating news that his friend, actor Heath Ledger, had died. The song was titled after the city where Ledger was born.

"Perth has such a feeling of isolation, and also it rhymes with birth, and every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren't," Vernon told Rolling Stone.
The aforementioned "Holocene" recounts a painful breakup from a second-person point of view. In an interview with NPR, Vernon explained that the song's title derives from a bar in Portland, Oregon — which also happens to be the name of our current geological epoch. It encapsulates the album's many fixations on places, people, and time coming together to form something greater and taking comfort in the fact that our hardships are minuscule in the eyes of the universe.

"Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind," he told NPR's Jess Gitner. "But I think there's a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song."

In this same thread, "Holocene" recalls inspiration from so many different anecdotes at once. Vernon revealed to Pitchfork that, despite the song's Oregonian namesake, much of the inspiration for "Holocene" comes from his time spent in different cities in Wisconsin — the result being an amalgamation of moods that come with the memories of these places. In Milwaukee, he said, adults would get "beer-drunk" on Halloween in order to forget their childhoods. This is referenced in the song's opening verse, in which the protagonist drinks away his own painful breakup.

Ten years later, Vernon hasn't stopped reminiscing. His newest album, 2021's How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? was released under his other project, Big Red Machine, a band led by him and fellow writer, musician, and producer Aaron Dessner. It centers on childhood, family dynamics, and mental health. The title is a line from their lead single, "Latter Days," written by collaborator Anaïs Mitchell.
"It was clear to Anaïs that the early sketch Justin and I made of 'Latter Days' was about childhood, or loss of innocence and nostalgia for a time before you've grown into adulthood — before you've hurt people or lost people and made mistakes," Dessner told Variety last year. "She defined the whole record when she sang that, as these same themes kept appearing again and again."

Since the release of the band's sophomore album, Bon Iver has released two more full-length records: 2016's 22, A Million and I, I in 2019. With the latter, the band embarked on a series of tour dates, many of which ended up being canceled owing to the pandemic. The current tour marks a proper return for the band, with Friday's show celebrating the group's return to Miami for the first time since a date at the Fillmore Miami Beach ten years ago. Fans will surely want to attend, if only to revisit the nostalgia of hearing the band perform tunes from its Grammy-winning album. Bridgers says it best when she writes that the record "amplifies whatever feelings are already there."

"When you are asked to write about Bon Iver, Bon Iver you haven't listened to it all the way through since you were a teenager," her anniversary essay reads. "In the delicate balance of contentment and nostalgia and depleted serotonin, you remember all the reasons you love this album."

Bon Iver. With Dijon. 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 15, at FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550. Tickets cost $29.50 to $119.50 via livenation.com.
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Ursula Muñoz-Schaefer is a freelance writer and critic. Since graduating from Florida International University in 2020, she has covered news and entertainment stories for Xtra, palabra., and more. Her work has been recognized by Florida's Society of Professional Journalists.