BON IVER: Back Tracks

the albums before the album

Ken Szymanski |

In a good musical career, each CD serves as a stepping stone – immortalizing both growing pains and talent sparks. Justin Vernon, along with various versions of various local bands, gave us a trail to trace up to his current acclaim For Emma: Forever Ago. For Volume One, Justin went back and picked his favorite tracks from his past, as well as some cringe-worthy moments. He made it clear that he wouldn’t actually take any songs back because they were all part of the experience. But, for the sake of conversation, here they are …

1. MOUNT VERNON | We Can Look Up (1998)
Recorded over a weekend in Minneapolis, We Can Look Up brims with idealism and positive energy, soaked in a ska/roots/reggae sound.
Favorite Tracks: “So Red,” “High Five,” and “Superstatic”
Cringer:  “Black Pirates”

| All of Us Free (2000)
This sophomore effort was released as the band disbanded to spend time in separate parts of the world. Shorter and leaner, it’s more of a complimentary record to We Can Look Up than a giant leap forward.
Second half of “Sandlot” – for Kyle’s trombone solo
Cringer: “Morning” – “Out of all the songs, ever,” Justin says, “I think I might have been a little off my rocker because it’s like a rap song, or whatever. That’d be one I’d wanna re-think a whole lot.”

3. JD VERNON | Feels Like Home (2001)
Upon their return, Mount Vernon decided the band was done. Justin, invigorated by his semester in Ireland, released this solo record under the name JD Vernon. Having over-estimated the demand, Justin still has several boxes of these CDs.
Favorite:  “Feels Like Home” – “It’s a little overt at times for me to listen to now, but it is everything this record is about. 
Cringer:  “Morning AM” – see “Morning,” above

4. DEYARMOND EDISON | self titled (2004)
“This was like a re-beginning of something for us,” Justin says. “It was our first glance at Eau Claire from an adult sort of standpoint. It was sort of one foot in the past and one trying to figure out what the present was…and not having any clue what the future was.”
Favorites: “Leave Me Wishing More,” “Conquistadors,” “My Whole Life Long” – “I’m still in that song,” he says of “My Whole Life Long.” “That was a rare moment I think where a song peaked through in this sort of overt writing style.”
Cringer: Surprisingly, Justin singled out “The Lake” – a fan favorite. “Even though I like what that one’s about,” he reveals, “we could hardly ever play that song because we couldn’t re-create that moment. The moment was tied down to this recording.”

5. DEYARMOND EDISON | Silent Signs (2005)
Recorded before relocating to Raleigh hoping to taking their music to the next level, the quieter approach here foreshadowed Bon Iver: a falsetto used in “Heroin(e)” and more abstract songwriting. Looking back, Justin feels he was still imitating his influences too closely, especially vocally. “I was being encouraged by the guys (in the band) to challenge that voice because…in a way I was cradled so much by this Eau Claire scene and by the supporters that I just wanted to keep singing that to them and singing what they wanted to hear,” he says. “But I wasn’t really there.”
Favorites: “Lyrically, I think ‘Silent Signs’ was more advanced than anything Deyarmond ever did,” he says. “And ‘Time to Know,’ I really like that still. ‘Ragstock,’ to me, is the biggest bridge into Bon Iver-land because of the way it was recorded – sort of direct and quiet.”
Cringers:  “I would definitely take “Dead Anchor” off of this because I don’t think it’s a very good song,” he says with a head shake. 

Additional commentary:  “If this record had picked up, I’d be a very confused person right now because we’d still be playing and we’d still be in a band…and I’d be lost in this stuff right now,” Justin says. “And I’m lucky…because it’s a good record and it got the attention of a few people, but I’m glad it didn’t snowball. I needed that time alone to disassociate myself with myself and attach myself to what I wanted to do. Joey, Brad and Phil were my inspiration to play because I just looked up to them so much as brothers and friends. That, ironically, became the thing that rendered me unable to write for myself – and that’s what they wanted me to do.”

Note:  Minor releases In the Room #1, Last Bridge Home soundtrack, Self-Record, and The Bickett Residency not included.