Beautiful songs only partly explain the allure of Bon Iver 

The Triumph of Sincerity

The Triumph of Sincerity

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has flummoxed the music industry over the past few years. A stocky, bearded farmhand type who wouldn't be out of place in an ad for Bassmasters, he's allergic to strategic calculation, yet has wielded the kind of metric dominance that executives pine for daily: critical and word-of-mouth favor, enviable sales figures and chart positions, key collaborations, magazine covers and sold-out tours. Even his Northern Exposure-inspired pseudonym, meaning "good winter" in French, has an air of accidental fortune, its intentional misspelling making it perfectly optimized for Google. Indeed, Vernon could probably bank in the twilight of his career lecturing at industry symposiums and music business programs like Belmont's, where attendees long for the unlikely star to share what secret intelligence the gods once gave him atop that elusive Mount Sinai of prosperity. (Apparently for Vernon, it was tucked away in Eau Claire, Wis., a fact that will confound A&R reps for years to come.)

Truth is, however, that lecture would be pretty boring, despite Vernon's somewhat professorial appearance and academia-lite diction. Vernon doesn't know and doesn't care what it takes to be a star. And why would he? He didn't seek out success — success sought him. This much we know. But the reasons why, outside Vernon's obvious talents, aren't as easy to pin down.

The narrative of Bon Iver's ascent has been covered thoroughly, but it's worth detailing once more for the uninitiated. In late 2006, a downtrodden Vernon retreated from his short-lived home of Raleigh, N.C., to his father's Wisconsin cabin to gather himself after two heart-rending breakups — one with a band composed of his best childhood friends (DeYarmond Edison), the other with a longtime girlfriend. After a bout with mono, he returned to songwriting as a means of catharsis, writing and recording For Emma, Forever Ago — Bon Iver's haunting yet joyous debut. Nearly universal acclaim ensued once the album received adequate distribution in 2008 — thanks to Secretly Canadian — the din growing loud enough that Vernon would soon appear on the radar of hip-hop iconoclast Kanye West, who went on to sample Bon Iver and to employ him in the production of 2010's My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Once merely conceived as a home project, a reprieve from sadness, Bon Iver has all but become a household name.

Yet perhaps there's a deeper, more intangible reason that Justin Vernon is on the tip of everyone's tongues — one that can't be quantified in the war rooms of Music Row, New York City or Tinseltown. The far more interesting aspect of Vernon's success lies in what it tells us about our culture — one that is fast-paced and self-obsessed, yet loathe to wear its heart on its sleeve. Our new reality is constant posturing and image cultivation, and because we know this about ourselves, it's increasingly being defined by cynicism. These days we spend more time analyzing each other's motives than we do each other's contributions — which is anathema to the approach of Justin Vernon. Bon Iver fills a void, as an idea and as a gorgeously wrought musical endeavor, that social media and constant invocations of "cool," in any setting, only perpetuate. This music, simple but remarkably elegant, is an antidote to all that perturbs us about our current condition, a world to get lost in alongside others equally weary of trying to keep up.

Consider Vernon's fan base, which became impossible to define almost as quickly as For Emma went from self-released MySpace fodder to global phenomenon. It is a formless, colorless contingent, its contours defined only by a taste for the emotionally enriching. Bon Iver devotees are soccer moms at Starbucks embracing Vernon's whispery coo, English majors who love his vague but vivid poetry, studio geeks who relish his tasteful use of vintage gear and hybrid recording techniques. Then there's the rest of us, who listen with wonder to an achingly beautiful folk sound that's far from unfamiliar, yet remains somehow intoxicatingly foreign. Like Sigur Rós in the early Aughts, Bon Iver is an anomaly, a magnet for intense subjective projection — everyone gets something different from the experience. More than that, Vernon has reinvigorated the pleasure of listening for many whose ears had grown weary of ironic try-hards and tween-baiting over-sharers, unintentionally reclaiming the spotlight for a long-forgotten style of indie rock that was confident in its earnestness and not the least bit concerned with what's fashionable. (Here's to you, American Football.)

Even then, the impact of Bon Iver is arguably best understood by simply looking to the person of Justin Vernon, the native Midwesterner who embodies a classic ideal of the American male. He is sensitive and hyper-literate yet unquestionably masculine, unpretentious yet averse to false humility. He's a craftsman (April Base, where Vernon recorded his latest, far more expansive effort Bon Iver, Bon Iver, was remodeled from an old vet's clinic with his bare hands), and despite all his success, he's still content to reside in the small blue-collar community in which he was reared. We find solace not just in his songs, but in his ethos, his affirmation of timeless ideals. We find in Bon Iver an escape from the frenetic pace and posture of the new millennium. We find in Vernon a sense of what once made our country strong. By getting back to first principles, he works to free us from the culture of cool, from the idea that enough is never enough — a winning strategy if there ever was one.


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