Bon Iver, Bon Iver sounds like a summer storm. A muggy June evening; temperatures that hang suspended in the mid-70s, even after the sun goes down; heat lightning flashing on the horizon; and then, eventually, a torrential downpour, crashes of thunder, strikes of lightning too close for comfort.
Or maybe I just think this album sounds like all those things, because that happened to be the environment in which I first heard it. The night Bon Iver, Bon Iver leaked on the internet, weeks ahead of its June 21, 2011 release date, it was pouring in northern Michigan. When I first heard “Perth,” it felt like someone was taking the weather outside and translating it into music. The far-off guitar notes felt like the first flickers of lightning on the horizon. Vernon’s multi-tracked, harmony-backed voice, when it breaks through the waves about 45 seconds in, evoked the gentle drizzle of the storm’s start. And then, the crescendo: a martial drumbeat, a wash of horns, the guitar sparking louder and louder. The song builds until it sounds like a furious storm—the rain clattering against your windowpane, the thunder rattling the glasses in the cabinets, the lightning flashing so quickly that it seems to illuminate the entire outside world for minutes at a time. Soon, the song subsides, burns itself out. It fades to nothing as quickly as it exploded— just as a summer storm eventually crashes away.
I’ve never had a first listen to an album that was quite as elemental as my first encounter with Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning that first night, letting the entire album wash over me. By the time I emerged, the storm really had burnt itself out. But it had already left its mark on the music. Ever since, every time I listen to this record, it still evokes for me that very specific feeling: a humid summer evening bursting apart in a cacophony of the wild sights and sounds of Mother Nature, only to find its way back toward gentle peace. The only other piece of music in the world that captures that same feeling as authentically, for me, is a little song called “Purple Rain.” And that’s fitting, because Bon Iver, Bon Iver is kind of like if you took “Purple Rain,” the song, and blew up all its attributes and properties into the ingredients for an album-length experience.
One album earlier, a Prince comparison would have been outlandish for Bon Iver. On For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon made music that was cold, rustic, and woodsy. The album’s mythic origin story—of Vernon’s heartbroken retreat to a remote Wisconsin cabin—certainly helped color in those descriptors. But they were there in the music too, which owed much of its beauty and charm to classic folk music signifiers. For Emma remains an all-time classic in the “lonely winter folk album” sub-genre, but its strengths could hardly have pointed to what Vernon would accomplish on Bon Iver, Bon Iver—an explosive, symphonic, summer-tinged opus flecked with ‘80s pop and rock ‘n’ roll.
But the interim between Emma’s 2007 debut (as well as its 2008 re-release on Jagjaguwar) and the arrival of Bon Iver, Bon Iver had blown up all the expectations for what Vernon’s music could be. His 2009 projects—the Bon Iver EP Blood Bank and the full-length side project album Unmap (recorded under the “Volcano Choir” moniker)—didn’t reinvent Vernon’s image, but they paved the road for the things that did. In November 2010, a little less than seven months out from Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon appeared as a marquee collaborator on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The fragile, lonely voice we’d heard on For Emma was suddenly sharing the stage with West, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and more. On “Lost in the World,” Kanye even took one of Vernon’s songs—the one recorded as both “Woods” (on Blood Bank) and “Still” (on Unmap)—and transformed it into the big, cathartic denouement for his masterpiece. By the time Vernon was touting influences like Bruce Hornsby for his second Bon Iver record, or covering songs by the likes of Bonnie Raitt (“I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Nick of Time”) or Peter Gabriel (“Come Talk to Me,” one of the greatest covers of all time), he’d already transfigured himself from an indie-folk superstar into a major pop music player.
That’s not to say Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a pop album, or that it’s even as massive a departure from Emma as it could have been. There are songs here—namely the magnificent “Holocene,” probably the consensus choice for “best song on the album”—that wouldn’t have been out of place on the predecessor. But when Vernon does start rewriting the rubric, he does so in beguiling and electrifying ways. The sheer bigness of “Perth” was jaw-dropping in the wake of an album that, even when it was layered and emotionally bombastic, still felt small enough to fit into a rustic Wisconsin cabin. Songs like “Minnesota, WI” and “Calgary” have an expansive, journeyman feel to them that belies the album’s alternate-universe roadmap, with its mysterious, mixed-up place names.
Most audacious of all is “Beth/Rest,” the most overt ‘80s send-up on the record and perhaps Vernon’s greatest song ever. Schmaltzy keyboards; reedy saxophones; a cinematic, drama-filled guitar solo. I remember friends of mine, at the time, poking fun at these elements and the era of music they referenced. To a lot of indieheads who’d found their way to Bon Iver because of “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks,” the full-on ‘80s pop cheese of “Beth/Rest” was one bridge too far. A lot of people wrote the song off as an outlier, if not the album’s clear, laughable weak point. But I always felt like those listeners missed the point: “Beth/Rest” was not only a tip of the hat to the pop music world that Vernon had enmeshed himself into—and a called shot for the ‘80s-centric music trends that were about to overwhelm pop—but it was also the closest he got to directly channeling his biggest influences for Bon Iver, Bon Iver. No other song would have been a more fitting conclusion, in part because no other song that Vernon has written—before or since—has had the same level of propulsive power. When you start an album with a storm, you need to end it somewhere similarly explosive. “Beth/Rest,” with its ‘80s rom-com swell, was the natural piece to finish the puzzle.
As a music listener, I find I’m drawn to “transitional” albums in an artist’s catalog: the records that come between an artist’s early, template-setting roots and the weird, daring left turns they’ll take later. A transitional record is an album where an artist starts to exhibit restlessness and evolve their sound beyond their foundational elements, but where they’re not quite to the point of leaving those early comfort zones behind entirely. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was a transitional album, between the perfect pop of their early albums and the psychedelic experimentation of their later ones. Taylor Swift’s Red was a transitional album, between her diaristic country music roots and her imperial pop phase. In 2011, mere months before Bon Iver, Bon Iver hit shelves, Vernon’s fellow indie-folk torchbearers in Fleet Foxes unleashed their own transitional album in Hopelessness Blues, the midway point between their resoundingly pretty, harmony-rich folk-rock and the darker, weirder, more anxiety-ridden music they would make later.
Bon Iver, Bon Iver fits into this legacy of transitional albums. It still bears most of the hallmarks of For Emma, Forever Ago, from the acoustic guitars to an album cover that evokes remote, peaceful places. But it also starts bristling against Emma’s confines in fascinating ways. The melodies are more meandering. The lyrics frequently dissolve into nonsense, with the music becoming more about feeling than understanding. And the influences nod toward an expanded sonic palette without quite leaving behind the folky sweet spot that Bon Iver had made its name on—until the last track, at least.
Vernon would never make a record like this again. In 2016, after five years away from the Bon Iver moniker, he returned to the well with 22, A Million, an audacious, experimental left turn informed as much by hip-hop and electronic music as it was by folk. 2019’s i,i meanwhile, felt like Vernon’s attempt to build his once sparse and intimate songs into arena rock anthems. There’s magic to these records, as well as to Vernon’s numerous side projects—from Volcano Choir (2013’s Repave is the truest spiritual follow-up to Bon Iver, Bon Iver in everything but the name) to Big Red Machine (a team-up with The National’s Aaron Dessner that helped pave the way for Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore). But just like Red and Rubber Soul and Helplessness Blues, there’s something particular about Bon Iver, Bon Iver that Vernon never quite recaptured. That fact alone makes it a remarkably special album—a 100-year storm, if you will, the likes of which we may never see or hear again.