With frontman Justin Vernon's lumberjack-meets-Brooklyn ratty beard and gentle falsetto voice, it's easy to dismiss Bon Iver as wussy indie-pop — or just boring. Saturday Night Live recently satirized this perception with a sketch in which cast members playing Beyonce and Jay-Z host a series of celebrity friends; Justin Timberlake plays Vernon, whose lullaby for new baby Blue Ivy ends up putting the artist himself to sleep.
The sparse instrumentation of some of Vernon's music and his faint, sometimes difficult-to-understand vocals can be lulling, but a closer listen reveals the complexities of his music, sometimes fraught with haunting moments. He wrote songs for his 2008 debut For Emma, Forever Ago in an isolated Wisconsin cabin following a breakup with a girl and a band. The record is marked by an eerie solitude. Some songs start spare but give way to big emotional climaxes; in a New York Times Magazine profile of Vernon, Jon Caramanica says those parts "sound like crying, deep primal purging." "Wolves" begins quietly with Vernon's gentle lilt and swells into a cacophony of clattering percussion and discordant vocals. (For another example of Vernon's brand of devastating heartbreak, see his recent cover of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me.")
While most tracks are stripped to guitar and vocals, drums and horns fill others. The album also is distinguished by Vernon's use of Auto-Tune, which isn't often employed outside pop and hip-hop (he reunited with the audio processor again on his 2009 EP Blood Bank, particularly in the album closer "Woods").
The album led to an unexpected collaboration with more high-profile Auto-Tune user Kanye West, who sampled "Woods" in a track on his 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On West's album, Vernon also has a verse on the track "Monster" alongside rap heavyweights Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z and Rick Ross.
Vernon's self-titled follow up still has the same level of intimacy but with a fuller, more stadium-friendly sound coming from a bigger band that includes pedal-steel guitar and saxophone. Guitar-driven songs like "Holocene" recall the debut record, but the strange '80s electro-pop intro of the divisive album closer "Beth/Rest" is an extreme example of the musician's new direction.
It was that album that helped earn him the Best New Artist Grammy, which came with the requisite "Who is he?" Internet backlash (people mishearing his name as "Bonny Bear" became an Internet meme). But if being parodied on SNL is any indication of cultural potency, people certainly know who Bon Iver is now.