Homonymic Hymns of Healing: Bon Iver and Personal Growth


How do we escape being alone? Isolation lingers in the air, a hovering ubiquity, waiting to sink in when spaces are filled with vacancies; it’s a chance to reestablish an old, independent identity or create a new one. In this movement, the focus shifts to one’s self and the questions become idiocentric, an opportunity of self-discovery and healing. From one of the greatest breakup albums to an enigmatic chaos of complexity in trying to understand one’s own identity, Bon Iver’s musical maturation parallels our own emotional development, a necessary journey that highlights traits of who we truly are.

Justin Vernon’s story has grown to a state of infamy. It’s impossible to detach For Emma Forever Ago from the tale of isolation, disillusionment, and subsequent healing. Its beauty is heavily rooted in emotional intimacy through lyricism, a poignant point of appreciation to anyone who’s felt spurned. An album that revels in grandiosity at points, it’s used sparingly to illustrate ebbs and flows of emotions, using the dichotomy of ambitious and intimate to make both more evocative. Through mourning, he keeps himself grounded with the love he has, opening the album with an acknowledgement that he is “[his] mother’s only one, that’s enough.” Yet the subject matter contradicts this. This is an album about recursion; even when the healing appears most confident and concrete, Justin finds himself in an equally established place of doubt. The titular track is a perfect example of this as the lines “Go find another lover; to bring a… to string along” is followed by “With all your lies, you’re still very lovable.” For Emma Forever Ago isn’t just about one man dealing with breakup, it’s about one man learning to redefine himself when such a substantial part of his being is lost. The musings of isolation don’t just reflect a struggle with loss, but the role of the individual within that loss, the attempt to create new from it, and the acceptance of faults and shortcomings.

Redefining one’s self goes beyond the individual, as well. Places become synonymous with memories, events, and people. Stepping foot off a plane in a familiar place can swallow you into stints of nostalgia, reverent reverie for what’s in the past. Conversely, it can feel like a firing line: a face to face encounter with a breaking point. Subsequently, Bon Iver, Bon Iver marks the transition away from processing a breakup to learning to redefine these places. Places and people are all individualistic entities, yet none are immune to our own imprint of memory, an identity that subverts the objective for the subjective. The rousing centerpiece is “Holocene,” a track about a bar in Portland, being without people, revisiting old memories, and embracing the past in all of its mishaps to beat the struggle of self-realization. By speaking of place and memory interchangeably, Vernon depicts them as synonymous entities, both being settings of our own residency; the titles of the songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are all related in one way or another to people or places, yet they don’t seem firmly rooted in their namesake locations. On “Michicant,” childhood is more the focal point, a time of being unafraid and the beautiful surroundings that ring in rhythm with the moments experienced within. Yet, on “Wash.,” the celebration of youth is juxtaposed by the perceived lack of growth in a set world as Vernon mournes “No, can’t grow up in that iron ground.” There are certain elements that make us feel stuck, secluded from the heart by external forces governing our perceptions, but they’re feelings that can be beaten with the inception of change, embracing it for its difficulties.

Just as For Emma Forever Ago looked at changing one’s own identity in face of a breakup and Bon Iver, Bon Iver was about the meaning of place to the individual, 22, A Million completes the cycles of growth and identification by bringing itself back to the onus of self: ourselves. The beautiful poetry mulls change in what surrounds us, yet in remedying all these issues of the inescapable, Vernon’s lasting problem is himself. Juking its way through large themes like religion to the individualistic concepts of anxiety, the half sober, half sombre stories of past albums get stripped away for the unquestionable core of existence. The consistent recursion to the self-doubt and lack of understanding of For Emma shows an exasperated Vernon trying to overcome the loss of a breakup followed by the reveries of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a closure to the settings of memory and he profoundly ends up at the problem that was there from the start. The cryptic quandaries all come back to a reinvention of self; to create a fresh slate isn’t a definite beginning of growth because we can all be complacent, never taking that first step to understand ourselves or become something new.

There’s a beauty in Bon Iver’s music, but there’s more than that. Through three albums, there’s something to be learned from his mullings. Difficulty is experienced in so many different ways and we as people face strong instincts to remedy this in a reactionary way. However, the truth is, the only thing known for certain is ourselves. The questions posed by hurt may shift the focus to the situation; it’s normal to linger on questions that indulges in the specifics rather than the overarching truths in our everyday existence.

Do not ever lose focus on yourself. No matter what issues arise, there’s an opportunity presented to create something, to own life, be our own leader, and embrace our faults as the starting point for something new. Never do yourself the disservice of asking the wrong questions, shifting focus to the situational when there’s the chance to be true to yourself and what you believe in. Justin Vernon spends two albums bemused by malaise and memory; his third stripped away the frivolity to acknowledge and work on himself. There’s a recursion in his work as a whole and that recursion is reflected in us. While the questions can become daunting, unnerving, and unsettling, they’re the questions that need to be asked; as individuals in a constant state of flux, it’s our duty to face the necessary and ask that which leads us to become ourselves.

By Brendan Tuytel