A Portrait of the Artist as a Sad Man

Thomas Cole. A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountans (Crawford Notch), 1839.

The first time I ever wrote about music was for a journalism class I took during one of my first years in college. The assignment was simple—review a song. There were no real directions other than this. At the time, I was obsessed with Eric Clapton, whose Derek and the Dominos recordings had fortuitously made their way onto our building’s illicit servers that spring. Eric—or Derek, as it were—and I felt like kindred spirits frustrated by loneliness and unrequited love. Between his impassioned vocals and guitar work and Duane Allman’s slide transcendence, what felt like raw, unbridled emotion oozed from my small pair of speakers and into my soul. “Layla,” of course, was the album’s undisputed masterpiece, and it made the ideal choice for my review. In my head, I was Derek and his pain was mine.

Years later, during a dinner with the professor who’d taught the class, I brought up the assignment and the song I’d reviewed. He still assigns the song review each semester and chuckling to himself he described the next generation of my “Layla” story.

“Every semester without fail, there’s a guy who writes about Bon Iver,” he said, laughing. I was kind of surprised to hear that each year there was a new generation of me, relating their own personal insecurities through the lens of indie moodsmith Justin Vernon’s falsetto-infused Bon Iver persona. “I’ve heard the story a thousand times,” my old professor joked. “Guy breaks up with his girlfriend, retreats to some mythical cabin…”

Somehow, it always goes back to this cabin. For the uninformed, Vernon wrote much of his breakthrough 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago in his father’s hunting cabin located in the woods near his family’s Eau Claire, WI home. Suffering through mononucleosis and dissolving relationships—with women and lifelong musical friends—Vernon retreated to the woods, recording an introspective set of songs that landed him on every year-end “best of” list and afforded him a unique blend of indie cred and critical acclaim—the truest evidence of success in the current moment where “making music worth stealing” is the new cultural currency.

Since then, the Vernon family vacation home has become indie rock’s version of The Band’s “Big Pink.” That space, a large pink-painted Woodstock-area home, was where four Canadians and the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer crafted essential standards of American roots rock like “The Weight.” For Vernon, his family’s cabin marks the beginning of the ultimate indie rock creation myth—the despondent dude disappearing from the world and reemerging with authentic art.

In December, Vernon was nominated for four Grammys as his course almost inexplicably collided with the mainstream. His follow-up to For Emma —last year's Bon Iver, Bon Iver—was a surprise hit with the music establishment, and he's struggled with the spotlight ever since. Vernon went on to win two awards—for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album—but in the weeks leading up to the event, he ignited larger questions about his image and his identity—about creative authenticity, indie credibility, and what happens when an album takes on a life of its own.

Ever since For Emma, Forever Ago left that cabin in the woods, it hasn't been entirely clear where Justin Vernon ends and Bon Iver begins. As long as his music was confined to a small group of devoted followers, perhaps it didn't particularly matter. But with the arrival of the artist's unlikely mass appeal, his intimate reflections could be purchased on iTunes for $9.99. What would it mean—and how would he react—as his passion project moved from the security of the wooded mountain retreat and came under the mass culture microscope?

The guy who recorded an album alone in the woods. This line might end up on Justin Vernon's tombstone,” Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson jokes in a review of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. “There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating, heartbroken, to a cabin to write some songs.”

For Emma is short—nine songs and 37 minutes total, but drenched in intimacy from the opening acoustic strums of “Flume” to the sound of Vernon putting down his guitar, walking away, and turning off the recording that ends “re:Stacks.” I spent long hours alone with Vernon in the library stacks as I wrapped up my degree—the irony of the song title not lost on me—because here, again, was a guy I could relate to singing my perceived sorrows. What was peculiar about my experience then was that I didn’t really have much to be sad about. Yet his raw emotionality spoke to me in the same way Clapton had. On songs like “Lump Sum” and “Skinny Love,” I was transported away from my own existence and plopped down in the cabin of Vernon’s construction.

“These days, Vernon is more likely to poke fun at the image, but it endures because it fulfills a fantasy for us as listeners,” Richardson explains. “Even if we don't care for the outdoors, most of us occasionally want to escape our lives, be alone with our thoughts, and see if we can tap into something true. In a time of easy distraction, the idea of heading into a cabin at the edge of the world to create is alluring. By tying the intimacy of that image to Justin Vernon's music, we're able to take the trip with him.” Vernon’s genius is his ability to somehow perform this kind of Emersonian Walden Pond transcendentalism in an almost unquestionably sincere way in the Wisconsin woods. Within Vernon lived Emerson’s “soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.”

When I first started conceptualizing this article, I envisioned a pseudo-investigative trip to Eau Claire to find the mythical cabin of legend. There are scattered facts—the cabin is Vernon’s father Gil’s hunting cabin, it sits on an 80-acre plot, and it’s about an hour northwest of Eau Claire proper. An early bio describes Vernon’s time there: “days filled with twelve-hour recording blocks, breaking only for trips on the tractor into the pines to saw and haul firewood, or for frozen sunrises high up a deer stand. All of his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt that had been stock piled over the course of the past six years, was suddenly purged into the form of song.” Parts of me wanted to go there to make a pilgrimage to this new patron saint of male sadness.

I still haven’t made it to Eau Claire. But what I’ve come to realize is that the cabin’s importance and mythos lies in its mystery and obscurity. The cabin—and Bon Iver itself—has become for each of us what we make it. My Bon Iver cabin became one large room where it was somehow always dusk, with a wood-burning stove and a large table made of reclaimed wood where Vernon sat with a primitive recorder and penned these tunes. In a late night TV interview, Jimmy Fallon described his version: “You're with a metal mug with something warm and a blanket around you and there’s no power.” For each of us, Bon Iver became this mythical utopian space where art and sorrow lived in concert.

Describing what For Emma, Forever Ago is about is, in a lot of ways, akin to trying to triangulate the cabin’s location. As far as anyone can tell, “Emma” might be Sara Jensen—Vernon’s high school sweetheart. But Vernon argued to Jon Caramanica of The New York Times that Emma is “a place, an idea that you get hung up on.” Geography is also a huge part of the Bon Iver ethos—Vernon has a tattoo of Wisconsin on his chest with counties of personal significance highlighted. On Bon Iver, Bon Iver, tracks are named after towns real (Lisbon, OH) and not (Hinnom, TX). It makes sense, really—Bon Iver songs are spatial constructions, whether they're within the cabin's walls, different states of being, or literal states themselves.

Equally mystifying are For Emma’s lyrics—cryptic messages whispered in falsetto that are often somewhat incomprehensible. “Only love is all maroon/Gluey feathers on a flume/Sky is womb she's the moon,” the chorus of opening track “Flume” intones. On “The Wolves (Act I and II),” he rhymes pain with blame and game with crane. The mysteriousness of the lyrical content, however, doesn’t prevent even the most obtuse listener from realizing that this is one sad dude. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this, too, reads for me as a part of the larger aesthetic. We create meanings for these messages based on our own situations. Even the appropriate way to pronounce the name “Bon Iver,” which loosely translates to “good winter,” is bandied about in the blogosphere.

I think it could probably go without saying at this point that I unequivocally enjoy Justin Vernon’s music. I’m not alone by any means in that sentiment. But as the legend has grown, my own uncertainties about the structuring of this mythos are becoming more disconcerting because it all seems a little too good to be true. Anything that seems that way usually is, but in this case the ideological repercussions have been surprisingly unexamined, and as Vernon has garnered more recognition, he has been forced to decide how to negotiate the contradictions of his cultivated character and the person he became when he returned from the wilderness.

Like other auteurs who have essentially become their band name, Bon Iver stands in for Vernon’s own identity. Two appropriate bedfellows who come to mind are LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Iron & Wine’s Samuel Beam—a pair of introspective (read: sad) men. And that’s saying nothing of Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional for anyone born before 1987).

But I think that in much of the popular discourse, Justin Vernon is Bon Iver. For reasons unclear, Vernon has, for the most part, escaped questions about the authenticity of the unified personae. Yet we’re to the point where the aesthetic's power has greatly bled into how we view this man’s life. Few question the myth because the story itself is so intoxicating. But should we?

I’ll frame this simply: Do Bon Iver songs lose something for us if Justin Vernon is successful or, for that matter, happy? I’m not begrudging him his success—I don’t have to, really, because he’s done it to himself enough over the last few months. Obviously, it would be foolish to expect Justin Vernon to be able to deliver his performances with the raw emotionality of those original For Emma recordings. But what does it mean when he is no longer the person captured on these tracks?

Is it possible that the Bon Iver identity stands in for that time—a kind of compartmentalized sorrow accessible when he needs it? When his rich but otherwise ordinary speaking voice gives way to the falsetto, doesn’t it feel like another is inhabiting his tall, lanky frame and using Vernon as his instrument? Perhaps Bon Iver is a creature where this sadness lives on, residing inside Vernon as much as in the spaces dotting the roadmap of his oeuvre. And how does Vernon reconcile the person he was then with the person Bon Iver has made him?

“[W]hen I made For Emma, it was my last chance to see if I could sit down and make something, for myself, that was beautiful,” he told Pitchfork’s Grayson Currin. “It wasn't because I thought the record was my chance to be successful; it was because the record actually meant something to me. […] If you are yourself and you don't become successful, the happiness that you get from creating something that is that truthful to yourself should be enough to propel you forward in life.” Vernon describes his work as an authentic representation of selfhood unaffected by dreams of success, connecting himself to the idea of l’art pour l’art—art for art’s sake.

To him, he’d have been a success no matter what the record had done, and fans worship him for saying that. In 1850, Edgar Allen Poe wrote: “Under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.”

But, in this case, the art moved away from such an idea when Vernon decided to package and sell it. Again, there is nothing wrong with that—I think we’re all better for it. What is problematic is that Vernon's insistence that he would have been a success no matter what comes only after he's already been a success. He makes the claim already knowing how the script plays out. Vernon has excelled while at the same time clinging to the idea that things like record sales haven’t defined him.

“I began realizing that it wasn't important for me to concern myself with the perception of truth. […] But I find it funny that the stories are wrong,” he explained to Pitchfork as the mythology around the For Emma recordings grew. “It goes to show that even the indie rock world—which is supposed to be about truth and independence from corporate mindfulness or something—is totally subject to the paraphernalia of celebrity.”

What Vernon fails to realize is that he is also subject to his own ideological propaganda—of indie rock authenticity. For better or worse, how we’ve come to know Justin Vernon is mediated through this Bon Iver persona. The two are inextricably linked, and Vernon’s real-ness relies on his ability to remain the Bon Iver he created and disseminated. So why is he so afraid of what that means? What would success do to his all-important aesthetic?

After the success of For Emma and the follow-up EP Blood Bank, Vernon found himself catching the ear of an unlikely source—rapper Kanye West. West, who at the time was laying low in Hawaii after his showdown with Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, wrote Vernon expressing a desire to sample “Woods,” perhaps Vernon’s most ambitiously constructed soundscape. The track is more than four-and-a-half minutes of Vernon’s voice harmonizing with itself. Distorted by auto-tune and other audio effects, he repeats, “I'm up in the woods/I'm down on my mind/I'm building a still/to slow down the time,” dozens of times, swirling around himself in a dynamic cacophony of emotion launched from familiar ground.

West wound up flying Vernon out to Hawaii to help with the recording of the acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “He’s a fucking genius,” fellow guest Rick Ross commented. “I’d never seen nor heard of him in my life, and I looked up, and I was in a fucking 5-by-5 room with a white guy, smoking weed […] and his voice is like something I’ve never heard, and he’s using words that are far from common. Within 20 minutes, I realized why Kanye had him there.”

In some ways, I think we can point to this as the moment where the ideological split may have occurred. In the album’s liner notes, the track “Lost in the World,” which utilizes the “Woods” sample, is labeled “featuring Bon Iver,” but the songwriter credit is J. Vernon. Elsewhere, they are still linked (usually stylized as Justin Vernon(Bon Iver)), but it’s become clear that Bon Iver is Vernon in performance, whether it’s him alone in a Hawaiian studio or backed his ever-growing touring band.

The problem for me has always been the fact that I’m completely unsure where the two personalities diverge and who’s speaking when. I’m not alone—Jimmy Fallon’s first question during the late night interview was, “Do I call you ‘Justin’ or are you Bon Iver?” And when unprinted comments emerged from Caramanica’s NYT feature after Vernon was nominated for the Grammys this past December, I began to wonder if, at that point, even Vernon knew.

When asked how he felt about the Grammy Awards last February, Vernon was quick to distance himself from the conversation. “I don’t think the Bon Iver record is the kind of record that would get nominated for a Grammy,” he joked. “I would get up there and be like, ‘This is for my parents, because they supported me,’ because I know they would think it would be stupid of me not to go up there,” he conceded to Caramanica. “But I kinda felt like going up there and being like: ‘Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending that this is important.’”

Being careful to exclude The Arcade Fire, whose Album of the Year award win that year had set the web ablaze with debates about what it meant for an “indie” band to win music’s top prize, Vernon told Caramanica that he believed “98 percent of the people in that room, their art is compromised by the fact that they’re thinking that, and that they’re hoping to get that award. […] And it’s just not important and people spend too much time thinking about it.”

It is important to consider the fact that Vernon made these comments with the assumption that he’d never be nominated for a Grammy award. They didn’t run in Caramanica’s original story, but were instead unearthed once he was nominated ten months later. These comments are telling—the idea of being one of “those people” nominated for the award is anathema to an artiste like Vernon, who tries—unsuccessfully—to make the claim that art can be compromised when the artist wants the acclaim they rightly deserve.

Vernon cited Nick Cave’s surprise nomination for the MTV Video Music Awards in 1996 as an influence—Cave wrote a well-publicized letter to MTV requesting that his nomination and any further ones be withdrawn because he was uncomfortable with the idea of music composition as competition. “MY MUSE IS NOT A HORSE AND I AM IN NO HORSE RACE,” he wrote.

I’m not necessarily saying that Vernon should’ve followed Cave’s lead and rejected the nominations, but there’s no denying that this was an exercise in contradictory posturing. The Grammys had in essence called his bluff—and when faced with a choice of rejecting them altogether, he faltered. Justin Vernon would receive the award, even though doing so flew in the face of what Bon Iver stood for.

In the lead-up to the awards, Vernon did some anti-establishment damage control, explaining why the band had chosen to reject the show’s offer to perform during the program. “We wanted to play our music, but were told that we couldn't play. We had to do a collaboration with someone else," he told Billboard. "We kind of said 'fuck you' a little bit and they sort of acted like they wanted us to play, but I don't think they wanted us to play.”

Putting aside the fact that Grammy performances often feature these types of collaborations, Vernon’s final speculative assertion was important because it would appease people concerned about Vernon selling out to be on the stage in the first place. By suggesting that his band didn’t belong all along, it maintained the elitist anti-rock persona—the Bon Iver side of his two-faced coin. “Fuckin' rock n' roll should not be decided by people that have that job,” he argued, referring to the faceless suits who’d made the decision to pair him up. “Rock n' roll should be the fucking people with guitars around their backs and their friends.”

Also difficult for me have been Vernon’s consistent attempts to maintain his critical outsider status while still reaping the benefits of the inside. His image was featured on posters for the event, and “Holocene,” which was nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, was featured in a commercial. "We had to deal with all this shit, we wanted to get a promo out of the deal," Vernon explained to Billboard. "Go ahead, pay for our commercial. There's a big misunderstanding – I don't want to sell music. But if people are going to be selling music, and they want to sell our music without disturbing the medium of what it actually is, we want to fucking do that. I want people to hear the music that we make, I don't want to do it in any shitty way.”

Complaining that the award meant nothing and refusing to perform because he wouldn't be allowed to play his music reinforced the kind of indie-hipster elitism cred that, for better or worse, had always been the butter he spread over his ideological bread. Only on his terms would it be appropriate to put the Bon Iver brand up for sale.

Vernon has dipped his toes into this sort of thing with a recent endorsement of Bushmills whiskey. "It's interesting, being part of Bon Iver, it's like a band that started out as nothing and became something, he explained. “And for something like Bushmills, it's been around for 400 years and has traversed centuries of alcohol laws and lobbyists and global corporate whatever. […] It's an advertising company, but at least it's advertising something that I tend to believe brings people together."

For Vernon, as long as he could fit Bushmills into the overarching Bon Iver ideological space—separatist and rebellious, but unifying—he could justify his support of it. Whiskey is as appropriate a poison as any, right? But it’s becoming more and more clear that Justin Vernon does what needs to be done, business-wise, while Bon Iver remains untarnished and beyond scrutiny.

To a point, I sympathized with Vernon’s expressed discomfort as the curtain rose on the Grammy Awards a few weeks ago. The evening’s red carpeted, tuxedoed decadence belied the fact that much of the show’s essential premise—the music business patting itself on the back—seems kind of silly as record sales continue to plummet. One needed to look no further than the Best New Artist category for evidence of this discomfiting disconnect.

The category recognizes “the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.” In some ways, it’s almost an insult for an artist like Vernon, who put out his first record as part of a group called Mount Vernon in 2001, to be nominated at all. Bon Iver, Bon Iver could hardly be considered “new.” Other nominees included Nicki Minaj, whose public profile began with her acclaimed appearances on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, and American dubstep pioneer Skrillex, whose brand of dance music best represented “new-ness” in 2011.

The producers probably couldn’t have chosen a more out of place presenter than Tony Bennett, who mugged for the crowd with overexcitement about a group of acts he’d probably never heard of. As he shouted, “And the Grammy goes to…,” for a brief moment, Vernon’s point about the superficial sham of it all echoed through time and space, ringing true in my ears. But as the camera showed all five nominees waiting to hear their names called, something seemed different. With his head down, Vernon didn’t appear to be breathing. It was clear that in that moment he’d forgotten all the posturing and complications of leading this double life. He wanted to win, and as Carrie Underwood shouted, “Bon Iver!” a brief smile crept across his face while he stood, hugged his family and friends, and made his way to the stage.

As he made his way, the delicate “Holocene” played in the background. Perhaps the most inappropriate walking-to-the-stage music in recent memory, the song includes the line “and at once I knew I was not magnificent,” which was unsurprisingly not included in the brief snipped that accompanied his march to the proverbial mountaintop.

While young people across the world were struggling to figure out who this “Paul McCartney” character was and why he was singing about Valentines and golden slumbers, others seemed similarly confused by this gangly, bearded baritone. While he didn’t cause quite the consternation and confusion that The Arcade Fire did the previous year, many were still confused. Why was this “Bonnie” person thanking the voters for their “sweet hook-up?” As he read his card of people to thank, we could see the top of his head of thinning hair as he shifted awkwardly in his overlarge tweed suit.

“It’s really hard to accept this award. There’s so much talent out here on this stage and there’s a lot of talent that’s not here tonight,” Vernon, who took the stage alone, said. “It’s also hard to accept because when I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here. With that discomfort, I do have a sense of gratitude.” In these simple lines, he’d made his point, accepting his award but doing so as begrudgingly as he could still pretend to be. There was frustration in his countenance, but it was impossible to tell if he was angry with the evening’s pomp and circumstance or the fact that he couldn’t help but enjoy himself and appreciate the moment.

For all its flaws, the Grammys still represent a celebration of the power of music, and no artist deserved that reward more than Vernon did. I think we all can understand and appreciate his critique that the Grammys are an over-corporatized façade, but all music-making is, to some extent, fictional. Since the troubadours of centuries past, musicians have told us stories of love, loss, joy, and sorrow. But these stories have clear beginnings and endings, and that doesn’t make them any less substantial. Trying to live a life in line with the man in his songs wasn’t only infuriating for the rest of us in its inconsistency—it was impossible.

Ultimately, Vernon had been playing the game as much as anyone else had all along. On stage, in the warm glow of the spotlight, it became clear that he may have finally realized it. In doing so, he became human again, and not the man of myth he’d given himself no choice but to try to remain. Ultimately, Justin Vernon had done what Justin Vernon had to do for the good of Justin Vernon, even if it meant finally letting Bon Iver go.

As long as there has been music, there have been these debates about authorial authenticity and the dangers of success. No group has borne the brunt of these debates more than U2—who have seen everything from their lyrical content to charity work examined with a fine-toothed comb. “Look, I’m sick of Bono and I AM Bono,” the famous frontman once joked. “Rock ‘n’ roll is ridiculous. It’s absurd. In the past, U2 was trying to duck that. Now we’re wrapping our arms around it and giving it a great big kiss.”

Bono’s carefully calculated self-unawareness is necessary because no one can embody an ideal forever. Success has not destroyed his aesthetic or made his songs any less powerful or meaningful. He doesn’t need to preserve the guy in his songs every minute of every day for them still to carry weight. We do that for him. Every time a new person discovers Vernon’s story, it breathes life anew into Bon Iver, building a new cabin and populating it with whatever we need it to contain. Vernon’s creations are no less beautiful beyond his own cabin’s walls.

In perhaps the most eerily prescient moment of their interview, Jimmy Fallon, stumbling over himself in praise of Vernon’s work, asked if the cabin itself is named “Bon Iver.” Vernon laughed, shaking his head and dispelling another falsehood.

“You’ve come far from that frozen cabin,” Fallon joked as Vernon briefly allowed himself to bask in his deserved success. In that moment, five years and hundreds of miles later, Justin Vernon, the man himself, exhaled. He walked slowly away from the repositories of his past and toward late night TV interviews and pretentious award shows. At the Grammys, Vernon again faced two roads diverged in the Eau Claire woods, and he chose the one he’d deserved all along. The cabin in the woods may still be there, but Vernon’s finally left it behind.


John Vilanova