A Father Reflects on 12 Years With Bon Iver

Joel Oliphint
The writer and his wife in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the hometown of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon

Back in 2007 I often wrote about music on an orange Blogspot while contributing regularly to long-gone alt-weekly The Other Paper, and a year or so later I co-ran Columbus music blog Donewaiting.com. It was my “Am I a blogger?” phase, which, to be fair to Past Joel, is a stage many writers went through while trying to adapt to the Web 2.0 era. (In hindsight, “No” is the answer to that question.)

But in November of 2007 I blogged about how much I was anticipating the debut album from Wisconsin folkie Bon Iver. I only had a few Bon Iver tracks — mp3s downloaded from My Old Kentucky Blog earlier that year — but I was smitten by Justin Vernon’s “achingly beautiful, semi-lo-fi love songs,” as I wrote at the time. A few months later, when Jagjaguwar picked up Vernon’s initially self-released debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, the album’s origin story was already inseparable from the music, with bandleader Justin Vernon playing the role of indie-rock Thoreau, hunkering down with his heartache on the frozen ground of a snowy Wisconsin hunting cabin.

Revisiting For Emma today, it still sounds wintry and plaintive and gorgeous, though now oddly quaint. After all of Vernon’s reinventions, imagine a Bon Iver song starting with only an (unprocessed) acoustic guitar now, as on tracks like “Flume,” “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks.” Other aspects are weirder than you may remember — the wriggly, out-of-sync, high-pitched voices saying “Someday my pain” at the end of “The Wolves (Act I and II); the marching-band drums on instrumental “Team” paired with intermittent, extra-loud bass, guitar feedback and whistling that would make Andrew Bird cringe.

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