Did Bon Iver Peak With ‘Blood Bank’? Let’s Revisit Via The New Expanded Reissue

It is 2009, and Justin Vernon is the rising indie-rock star of the moment. His debut album as Bon Iver, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, has fixed an irresistible origin story in the minds of anyone who cares about bearded avant-folk musicians. Once more for the record: Guy with a broken heart retreats to the Wisconsin northwoods, dumps his pain into a collection of impressionistic and achingly beautiful songs, and then becomes kind of famous and highly successful. But the song that would truly map out his future — as well as influence the sound of popular music in the next decade — hasn’t been released yet.

As Vernon would later recall to the New York Times, his most radical and prescient experiment of this period was laid out before he released For Emma. “I made that sketch in North Carolina in an afternoon,” he said of “Woods,” a gut-busting holler of pathos and loneliness twisted into an arrestingly strange alien bleat by Vernon’s unconventional use of Autotune. In time, “Woods” would inform the evolution of indie and pop music, in which technology once associated with glossy Top 40 music is repurposed by a new generation to create sounds that, counterintuitively, evoke raw, primal emotionalism.

For Vernon, “Woods” would also be his entree into the world of Kanye West, who sampled the song on “Lost In The World,” from 2010’s landmark My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy LP. The association with West instantly put Vernon on a different strata of musical celebrity. By the time of the second Bon Iver album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon was already well on his way to becoming a signature indie-rocker of his generation, the rare artist in that field who headlines arenas and commingles with some of the biggest pop acts in the world.

Any review of this progression is incomplete without a thorough consideration of the crucial transitional work that came out between those first two Bon Iver albums. Released in early 2009, the Blood Bank EP includes just four tracks recorded around the time of the debut LP. At first glance, it seemed like a typical outtakes release intended to tide over a ravenous fanbase anxious for a new full-length record. But anyone who dug into Blood Bank quickly learned that it was something entirely more momentous.

Revisiting Blood Bank now, it might very well be the most representative work of Vernon’s entire career, touching on what he did in the late aughts while also mapping out where he was headed for the next decade and beyond. A new anniversary reissue out today, which doubles the length of Blood Bank with live versions of each song, reiterates its musical and historical importance in the story of Bon Iver.

“Woods,” which concluded the original Blood Bank on an outrageous and potentially contentious note, remains the most famous track here. In 2009, it seemed like a deliberate provocation, a distancing maneuver creating space between Vernon and the crushingly earnest hoards who were over-eager to crown him as the new king of “authentic” folk rock. After all, what better way to scandalize those people than to brazenly wield the sonic signifier of the very pop music Vernon was supposedly pitted against?

It’s obvious now that “Woods” in fact points toward much of Vernon’s work in the ’10s, in particular his fascination with pure expressive sound above straight-forward songwriting. On paper, “Woods” uses the same cabin-bound imagery of For Emma, likening emotional desolation with the physical isolation of being stranded in winter in the middle of a boundless, barren landscape. (“I’m lost in the woods” is a lyric that could’ve been inserted into any song from For Emma.) But musically, “Woods” manifests the sensation of deep psychic pain, in which the trappings of modernity are rubbed raw until they disintegrate like busted circuitry in your eardrums.

“Woods” subsequently became a kind of artistic north star for Vernon. As he said of the track in that same New York Times article, “It keeps rewarding me to follow my own thing.” This harsh, livewire sound ultimately entranced him as he proceeded to make Bon Iver more and more abstract as the decade progressed, culminating with 2016’s discursive and frequently thrilling 22, A Million. It also touched Kanye West, who also went about deconstructing his own sound and persona on records like Yeezus and The Life Of Pablo, both of which involved Vernon. But it’s not the be-all, end-all of Blood Bank.

While “Woods” exists at one end of the EP, the first track derives from a wholly different part of Vernon’s career. The title song of Blood Bank is a rare example of Vernon writing in a narrative style. The story spelled out in the lyrics couldn’t be more clear: Two people give blood. This becomes a metaphor for the tangible fragility of the human experience. And then they proceed to make out.

“I’ve always been into the Springsteen thing, writing pretty literally and trying to tell stories,” Vernon told me in 2008, alluding to his time in the pre-Bon Iver band, DeYarmond Edison. With For Emma, he radically altered his writing style. “With these songs, I was creating sounds first,” he explained. “I would create a space for the vocals, then transcribe vocal sounds and listen to what it sounded like. I would get lyric ideas from the sound of the voice.”

“Blood Bank” is like a callback to his previous writing style, when he emulated linear storytellers like Bruce Springsteen and John Prine. (It’s also musically Springsteen-esque, which thick guitar chords and an anthemic refrain of “I know it well” that’s far more robust and rock-oriented than anything else Vernon was doing at the time.) While it’s hard to fault him for changing lanes, given his subsequent success, this track shows that he was actually quite good at writing narrative lyrics. I’m especially like this verse, which vividly evokes the frigid splendor of an Eau Claire winter:

Then the snow started falling
We were stuck out in your car
You were rubbing both of my hands
Chewing on a candy bar
You said “ain’t this just like the present
To be showing up like this”
As a moon waned to crescent
We started to kiss

The middle two songs from Blood Bank now play as a kind of shadow greatest hits for early Bon Iver, with the luminously doleful “Beach Baby” nodding to the vibe of For Emma while the proggy Americana of “Babys” points to the denseness of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. The live versions of these tracks collected on the reissue, culled from Bon Iver’s excellent tours of the late ’10s, demonstrate just how rich this material was in terms of seeding the band’s future progression. While the Philip Glass cosplay of the studio version of “Babys” comes off as slightly mannered, Vernon was able to take that initial idea and allow it to blossom as an airy, jazzy, free-form concert vehicle. “Beach Baby” similarly has expanded from its bedroom ballad roots into something more rigorous and adventurous, with a punchdrunk horn section subbing for the heart-stopping pedal steel of the EP cut.

These live versions underscore what was already evident about the original Blood Bank: While it was a comparatively slight release when measured against the Bon Iver albums on either side of it, the EP packed enough musical ideas to map out an entire musical career. Justin Vernon has moved well beyond Blood Bank in terms of success and acclaim, but he’s still mining the music he first began to realize in these strange, beautiful, and deceptively simple songs.

Blood Bank EP (10th Anniversary Edition) is out now via Jagjaguwar. Get it here.

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