Never Gonna Break, Never Gonna Break: Bon Iver Turns 10

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Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Released June 17th, 2011 on Jagjaguwar Records

Produced by Justin Vernon

Peaked at #2 U.S., #4 U.K.

Singles:

Holocene

Towers

Beth/Rest

If you lived through 2011 you are forgiven for thinking that we were on the verge of a full-on folk-rock revival. It was really the fault of two bands and four albums: first Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver with Fleet Foxes and For Emma, Forever Ago at the end of the 00s, and then Helplessness Blues and Bon Iver in 2011. Between them, dozens of groups aped the style: The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters And Men directly, and countless more indirectly. The rising tide that Bon Iver peaked also brought along indie also-rans like Andrew Bird, and provided some padding for a sort of rebirth of Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes project, which in itself led indirectly to the rise of Phoebe Bridgers. So it was an important album in the early 10s, to say the least.

Justin Vernon had arisen out of seemingly nothing at all. His original band, DeYarmond Edison, had achieved some minor-league buzz but broke up in 2006 after two studio albums. He broke up with his girlfriend and suffered from a bout of mono. Famously, he then decamped to an isolated cabin an hour northwest of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The result of that isolation was For Emma, Forever Ago, one of the ten best records released in the 00s (and a new entrant into Rolling Stone‘s ongoing Top 500 All-Time list as of 2020) and the perfect showcase for Vernon’s haunted, yearning voice. Following up such a monumental record is hellishly difficult for any artist, but through a careful combination of luck and letting go Vernon managed to navigate his way to a successful second record. Bon Iver is immediately bigger, lusher, and more willing to wander down strange pathways than its predecessor. The ghostly rise and fall of the singer’s voice still takes center stage, to be sure, but the musical flourishes that accompanies it are more varied. This is less of a folk guitar record and more of a kitchen-sink record: synthesizers, saxophones, horns, pedal steel guitar and more occupy the shadows and the notches of these songs. Vernon attributes the success here to letting in other players to change his voice – that is, letting others influence the direction the songs would go, and in part how they would be framed. The result is still recognizably the Bon Iver that flared up out of the darkness in 2008, but it’s a wiser, more worldly Bon Iver.

The album is arguably the peak of the 10s folk-rock wave; it would dissipate into cheesy faux-Irish emo-folk singalongs that would attract a great deal of scorn in the end. It would also give us one of the funniest internet reactions in Grammy history in “Who da fuck is Bonnie Bear?” Vernon, who was by 2011 in Kanye West’s camp as the man’s go-to for frisson-laden openers (“Lost In The World”), would take forever to follow up his second record. When he finally did drop 22, A Million in 2016, it was his own Kid A moment – a critically acclaimed album of experimental hybrid folk-electronic that cycled in and out audiences. Out went the folk purists, in came the hipster nerds.

Incidentally, my vinyl copy of this is a misprint that is Side B on both sides, meaning that it ends on the straight-up AOR ballad “Beth/Rest” twice; this was awful at first but, after riding through the wave of weather channel-core/vaporwave in the 10s, I’ve come to appreciate it.

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