Family, fandom and the last 12 years of my life spent with the music of Justin Vernon

Back in 2007 I often wrote about music on an orange Blogspot while contributing regularly to long-gone alt-weekly The Other Paper, and a year or so later I co-ran Columbus music blog Donewaiting.com. It was my “Am I a blogger?” phase, which, to be fair to Past Joel, is a stage many writers went through while trying to adapt to the Web 2.0 era. (In hindsight, “No” is the answer to that question.)

But in November of 2007 I blogged about how much I was anticipating the debut album from Wisconsin folkie Bon Iver. I only had a few Bon Iver tracks — mp3s downloaded from My Old Kentucky Blog earlier that year — but I was smitten by Justin Vernon’s “achingly beautiful, semi-lo-fi love songs,” as I wrote at the time. A few months later, when Jagjaguwar picked up Vernon’s initially self-released debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, the album’s origin story was already inseparable from the music, with bandleader Justin Vernon playing the role of indie-rock Thoreau, hunkering down with his heartache on the frozen ground of a snowy Wisconsin hunting cabin. 

Revisiting For Emma today, it still sounds wintry and plaintive and gorgeous, though now oddly quaint. After all of Vernon’s reinventions, imagine a Bon Iver song starting with only an (unprocessed) acoustic guitar now, as on tracks like “Flume,” “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks.” Other aspects are weirder than you may remember — the wriggly, out-of-sync, high-pitched voices saying “Someday my pain” at the end of “The Wolves (Act I and II); the marching-band drums on instrumental “Team” paired with intermittent, extra-loud bass, guitar feedback and whistling that would make Andrew Bird cringe.

For Emma easily slid into the top spot among my favorite albums of 2008. My first child was also born in 2007, so I spent my first winter as a dad with Bon Iver’s music, putting my son in polar fleece footie pajamas (zippers only; curse any onesie with staggered buttons) while also trying not to let my so-called journalism career slip through my fingers. I wrote album reviews and concert reviews and blogged and interviewed people over the phone while my son slept. Sometimes the people flaked out and didn’t pick up when I called, or they’d ask if I could call them back in 30 minutes. I’d say, “Sure,” even though it meant wrapping myself in guilt and putting my son in a mechanical swing in front of Baby Einstein so I could talk to a musician about their latest existential crisis.

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But I was also consistently overcome by the love I had for this child, and the love I felt in return (eventually, when the gas-induced grins turned into real smiles). And For Emma was the ever-present soundtrack through all of that. 

At the time, “Team” felt slightly out of place on that first record — an experimental aberration. But then my wife and I went to see Bon Iver play the Wexner Center’s black box space in August of 2008, and all of a sudden “Team” felt less like an outlier and more like the skeleton key to the future of the band. “Who knew Bon Iver could rock out?” I wrote in the first line of my concert review. It was a loud, high-energy show, with moments of ecstatic cacophony spearheaded by an affable, humble bandleader who seemed to be perpetually in awe of the power of music.

Vernon and his band also performed two songs from the then-forthcoming Blood Bank EP, the title track and “Babys” — “a slow burner built around a repeated keyboard melody, dynamically adding more instruments as it developed. There was no verse, no chorus, just mood,” I wrote. Little did I know how much “mood” would supersede any allegiance to traditional song structures in Bon Iver for years to come. When Blood Bank came out in early 2009, the auto-tuned closing track, “Woods” (later co-opted by Kanye West), blew the lid off the bearded-folkie-in-the-woods myth, but in retrospect, the signposts were always there. 

Over the next two years, we grew to a family of four, and with only a Bon Iver album and an EP to sate our appetites, my wife and I gobbled up everything Vernon touched. My iTunes library is still full of Bon Iver B-sides and covers (“Roslyn” from one of the Twilight soundtracks, live versions of Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You” and John Prine’s “Bruised Orange”), a Daytrotter session, The MySpace Transmissions, Live in London, Vernon’s contributions to Anais Mitchell’s still-great Hadestown… anything we could get our hands on. 

Bon Iver is the one band my wife and I are both head over heels for. Since we’ve lived in Ohio, I can count on one hand the number of times she has traveled out of town with me for a concert, and about half of those fingers belong to Bon Iver. When bon iver, bon iver arrived in June of 2011, it was another reinvention, and we embraced it entirely, even the initially divisive, Bruce Hornsby-evoking closing track, “Beth/Rest.” It was a new era for Bon Iver, one that was hatched at Vernon’s new recording space/collective near Eau Claire, April Base. The album didn’t just swing the doors of the Wisconsin hunting cabin wide open; it razed the cabin.

In Philadelphia, I saw this version of the band, with saxophones and multiple drummers and vocal effects and theater-shaking bass, and it was the best I’d ever heard Bon Iver sound. After the first song, in the silence that followed after the applause, one lone fan yelled what everyone was thinking: “That was %#!&-ing awesome!”

At home, we played bon iver, bon iver into the ground, of course, and when the band went on indefinite hiatus we briefly mourned and then quickly incorporated Volcano Choir’s 2013 Vernon-helmed album, Unmap, into heavy rotation around the house.

On the Friday in September of 2016 when 22, A Million came out, I happened to get to the office early, when it was still dark outside and no one else was there. I put on my headphones and turned the volume up to a brain-enveloping level, and when the Messina-drenched “715 - CR∑∑KS“ came on, I actually welled up. I love music. A lot. But I can only think of a few times when it has affected my tear ducts, and usually it was because the music lined up with something else going on in my life. Maybe this time it was just early and I was exhausted. Maybe it was the start of a new school year or the relentless deadlines of a weekly paper. But I think it was just the music. 

But there’s more. On an epic family road trip a couple of summers ago, we purposefully routed ourselves through Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, just to lay eyes on it. We walked around downtown, got some coffee and bought some vinyl at Revival Records. Our kids snapped a photo of my wife and me in front of a giant mural depicting 22, A Million’s cover art. We drove by the open field where Vernon has hosted the Eaux Claires festival. (We decided not to go searching for April Base because we aren’t stalkers.) 

Fandom at this level is a bit embarrassing for me, a discerning music fan, to admit. Maybe it shouldn’t be. But outside of Bon Iver superfans, one of whom is flying from Philly to Columbus to see the Schottenstein Center show tonight (Tuesday, Oct. 8) with me and my family (and then seeing the show in Philly two days later), this type of fandom usually elicits blank stares or polite smiles similar to when I tell people that I still, in 2019, believe in the divinity of a Jewish carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago. (I’ll refrain from quoting Bon Iver’s “Faith” and “Heavenly Father” here.) 

The show at the Schott is in support of new Bon Iver album i,i, a sonic cousin to 22, A Million and a record that is, of course, in rotation on a daily basis in the Oliphint house. But I’m not reviewing this Bon Iver show. In addition to discovering I’m a crappy blogger, I’ve realized over the years that while I’m a capable reviewer, it’s probably not my strong suit. But mostly there’s no way I can be objective about Bon Iver. Instead, I’m bringing my wife and my 12-year-old son, who has had no choice but to be surrounded with the music of Justin Vernon since the days of footie pajamas (“Oh, my mind, our kids got bigger,” Vernon sings on i,i track “Naeem,” which is obviously a line he wrote with my children in mind). It’ll be his first rock show in an arena, and I hope he loves it, though at a certain point I know he may reject these songs he’s grown up with, which is fine. Truly, it is. I hope he and his sister are fortunate enough to find music they care about as much as my wife and I care about Bon Iver. But either way, this band will always be a part of their history.

All this to say, when people ask me what I think of the new Bon Iver album, they don’t realize they’re unintentionally asking me about everything that has happened in my life since I became a dad. And so I just tell them I like it very much. And when they ask me if I’m going to the Bon Iver concert, I tell them I am.