Bon Iver Taps Spiritual Core

I feel like I get the process -- and I get the intonations of Bon Iver. The brainchild of Justin Vernon, his masterwork -- For Emma, Forever Ago -- was recorded in Wisconsin during winter. You can almost hear the wooden floorboards in his voice, a piece of Will Oldham here, a chunk of Richard Buckner there. The heat register in the corner must have been turned up all the way on "Flume," a song that rollicks with Vernon's desperate guitar playing -- his flapping style and meandering incantation. The song "Wolves" dies several times, gets reborn, pushes through the disgust of a broken relationship, falters.

"What might have been lost" he repeats over and over, obviously never finding it. On "For Emma," with its trumpets sauntering along amid a weirdly emotionless strumming part, Vernon aches against a hidden grain -- holds up an invisible wall so the rest of us can see sorrow in full view. Maybe it was his band breaking up, maybe a relationship went south. The song "Emma" is particuarly odd because it's like he hired the backing band for Sufjan Stevens just to prove that he was really, really ticked off at the world. Bon Iver could make your most upbeat friend bleed dark purple.

Yearning, aching, reflection -- these are all characteristics of a spiritually-minded soul. We long for the eternal in a cesspool of the temporal. We're living in an abyss, sinking deeper into despair. The Bible talks about the "hands of God" a lot because they are the only thing that will lift us out. I'm not saying Bon Iver deals with spiritual subjects, but it certainly touches a spiritual nerve.

Right around 2000, before I was layed off from my job, climbing the steps of a corporate monolith, I had a discussion with a friend, a Jewish guy who was very smart and perceptive. I said, all great music is spiritual. He didn't agree at the time, I'm not sure if he does now. I insisted that even Bruce Springsteen has a spiritual element. We talked about bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco and The Jayhawks. I mentioned how, Neil Young has made a living by writing spiritual songs that are not spiritual. We trailed off into some other subject, but I still think great music touches something in us. I think Bon Iver has that quality -- rustic, open -- it's like a white light you can't help but see in the darkness.

Now I just need to figure something out: why can't Christian artists touch this same nerve? Why are Dustin Kensrue and Jon Foreman probably the only openly Christian songwriters who scrape the lower regions of the human condition where only God can rescue you? I'm not saying let's all get depressed, but let's at least admit that life is tough and be honest about struggles.

-John Brandon

8 Comments

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Josh Dissmore commented…

Great article John. Well written and very thought provoking. I have found Bon Iver's release to be more moving and haunting with each listen. I agree with you to an extent that it seems all of the great songwriters are in the secular realm. It seems that the artists I am influenced by the most have a completely different belief system than myself, yet I find their words to be inspiring, and oddly enough I find myself relating to them more often than their christian counterparts. To quote Larry Norman..."why must the devil have all the good music?" But I have to say that I disagree with you when you say that outside of Jon Foreman and Dustin Kensrue there arent many other relevant christian songwriters. The difference is that artists like myself and many others who write from a christian perspective on things such as the dark side of life, love, and spirituality, among other things, wont find a market in the christian music industry that Bon Iver would find in the secular, or "indie" world. The Christian music industry is still primarily ruled by Worship bands, hardcore rock bands, and CCM pop. Jon Foreman can sell millions of albums as the leader of Switchfoot, but only tens of thousands as a solo artist. This is because his solo work is more introspective and the subject matter a bit more spiritualy ambiguous. So, to sum it all up, there are many great christian musicians out there writing great music, but what's bankable, sells. There are great songs being written by christians today who arent named Chris Tomlin, Derek Webb, Martin Smith, Sufjan Stevens, or Jon Foreman...sometimes we just have to dig a little deeper to find the good stuff.

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bubs commented…

U2!!!

oh and phil wickham is the best.

is bon iver really christian?

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HeyHeyHey commented…

They are out there and I spend too much time looking for them..... Josh Garrels

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Hope commented…

Beth/Rest: "I aint living in the dark no more ,it's not a promise, I'm just gonna call it"
-Justin Vernon, Bon Iver
Very very moving, and as a born again Christian, this reminds me how I feel everyday about my faith. I am walking in the Light...I agree with you. Bon Iver feels spiritually inclined...

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saligirl commented…

I completely agree. I love this band so much, their music, particularly his falsetto and melodies really reach the bottom of my soul. I was always told a a teen that for every great "secular" band there is an equally great christian band, but I hate to say that I truly don't feel so. It's not necessarily the lyrics that get me in great secular bands, it's the sounds. Show me great christian bands that sound like Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, Ra Ra Riot, Tokyo Police Club, and Animal Collective, and believe me, I'd be all about it, but unfortunately I just haven't found any christian bands who sound anything like these, or even come close.

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