In seven weeks, I am seeing Justin Vernon live in the flesh, or more realistically tartan. He will march onstage and caress a guitar. Manchester arena will boom with communion, the dribbles and ascendancies of Bon Iver, the band, which has grown with Vernon’s vision since album #2. It is less of a group than a tapas menu, an amalgam of drums, keys and caps. They will play most of i,i, album #4, between songs that have spread across the 2010s twisting everything they touch.
The best part? If Lil Simz or J Cole jumped up with Bon Iver, it’d make complete sense. Rap music hasn’t escaped Vernon vogue. Often, it has embraced the schlub from Wisconsin – the man who began his career as a backwoods myth and swiftly went about cutting that image down, epitomising music that never wants to fit in, least of all as an excuse to be alone.
We now have 14 years’ distance from For Emma, Forever Ago, a record of titanic smallness, one of the most important folk releases of the century. It is as lovely as ever: a man and his voice and an acoustic guitar taking a sad trip to the department store for firewood. For Emma . . . broke Vernon upon the world. But even then, as Pitchfork notes, “he was one of the first indie songwriters to harness the emotional power of electronic vocals,” having buttered Autotune on ‘Woods’ and modulated the satyr cries of ‘Lump Sum’ and ‘Creature Fear’. Writer Evan Rytlewski is bang on the money when he says that the album and Blood Bank EP’s digital manipulation was “not just a cover-up for a weak voice, but a means to further heighten a great one.” This is gospel – sometimes literally. Watch Justin perform ‘Heavenly Father’ with The Staves or cover Bonnie Raitt. He has one of the most piercing yowls in popular music, as adept with baritone as the far-flung falsetto.
But if his breakthrough hinted at synthesis, 2011’s Bon Iver, a cinematic sigh of an album, proved he was not the cabin-bound folk hero plenty of us wanted. Gone was the intimacy of a humble guy and his venison. In its place landed an echo chamber, electric guitar and military drums. This was a project of mature, precise expansion. By then, he’d already worked with Kanye, who’d called him over to Hawaii for sessions on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “We were just eating breakfast and listening to it,” Vernon remembers of ‘Lost In The World’, “and Kanye’s like, ‘Fuck, this is going to be the festival closer.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, cool.’ It kind of freaked me out.”
Vernon’s admiration for Ye – and the latter’s insistence that Vernon is his favourite living artist aside from himself – shone through at a time when rap was sidling up to the pop vocal, Autotuned singing and more complex arrangements. West, of course, broke the most rules. But there was a spot for Bon Iver on Watch The Throne and Yeezus. Without him, part of hip hop’s journey to the mainstream – computerised vocals that really aren’t dialled in – wouldn’t have been as heartfelt or seductive.
As time has gone on, Bon Iver and hip-hop have drawn closer together. Why, though? Vernon’s lyrics are famously opaque: “I cannot just be a peach”; “Not yet awake, I’m raised to make”; “It’s hard to believe / When ‘em sold from your sleeves.” Legibility is not his forte. Neither is the bravado that charges rap’s finishing moves. Bon Iver is more concerned with waving goodbye at the foot of a dock or vanishing into reeds before dawn. We have a songwriter whose biggest anthem, ‘Skinny Love’, tells us to be patient. Hardly a weapon for chart assaults.
Yet those gentle, abstract qualities – dirtied up on Bon Iver’s 22 A Million – are what make his inclusions usually work so well. Like Thom Yorke, Vernon prefers being an instrument. He is not a personality. Therefore, he lends patchwork beauty to tracks like Lizzo’s ‘Bother Me’, or freezing soundscapes to Vince Staples’ ‘Crabs In A Bucket’, as easily as a moog preset.
Perhaps it is Vernon’s fearlessness, his dismissal of genre, that gives rappers so much inspiration. As Travis Scott said in 2013, “I’m where Justin is. I love that type of music and wish I could do that all the time, so I don’t like categories.” The slippage from For Emma . . . to i,i, and all the side projects en route, is a tonic for production ideas. If you’re a rapper who wants singing on your record, who’s better for vocal experiments? Bon Iver gave the human voice a new touchstone. Also, a simple and malleable one. Chance The Rapper repurposed Vernon’s croon for ‘Summer Friends’, while Milo’s thievery of ‘Creature Fear’ is an act of genius.
As hip hop has evolved, Bon Iver has exhibited mutual interest, toying with glitches, sampling and stuttering FX. This will probably continue. We may only have a few years left until all physical instruments are erased, the band’s gigs resting on a seascape of people pretending to be drum machines. Okay. Hit me. And bring Lauryn Hill back full time, because she needs a duet partner.