The artwork of Bon Iver: from 'Emma' to 'A Million'

Image credit: rick the lai

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is a phrase I've never really liked. Yes, the internal content is undeniably more important, but to withhold judgement completely is to undermine the hours of thought involved in conjuring a particular aesthetic. Few musicians understand this more than Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), who has worked closely with visual artists to produce the covers, videos, and murals that accompany his records.

For his first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon worked with graphic designer Daniel Murphy to create a ‘stand alone’ image. The cover consists of a single photograph: cold frost on a window, skeletal tree branches just visible at the top of the frame, and the album name written in lower-case, looping cursive. Ultimately, the purpose of album artwork is to represent the music, and this image encapsulates For Emma (or, at least, my interpretation of it). The handwriting conveys its raw authenticity, the frost its melancholic grief, the emerging tree its sense – towards the end – of things beginning to thaw (‘All my love was down / in a frozen ground […] Your love will be / safe with me’).

Fast forward three years and, for me, the feeling evoked by the second album is one of ‘scale’. Musically, Bon Iver moves out of the knotty, gloriously discordant sounds of For Emma, and into swirling, soaring, meticulous arrangements. The album is vaster in scope, scale, sound. Even the track names suggest a journey far beyond the mythologised Wisconsin cabin: Perth, Minnesota, Michicant, Hinnom, Calgary, Lisbon. For the cover, Vernon collaborated with visual artist Gregory Euclide, whose intricate work contains a fragile, etherial beauty that complements Bon Iver’s lyrical world.

Euclide creates watercolour landscapes that feel more like dreamscapes: a world where sea, sky, and sparse civilisation all blur softly into one. A corner of the painting folds backwards to reveal another painting – another world – beneath it, promising an album of emotional escapism. His compositional methods are unconventional. The piece was painted using melted snow and ice (perhaps the frost from the previous cover?) instead of tap water, and contained natural materials, preempting its inevitable decay.

The photograph was shot by Cameron Wittig, and the handwriting belongs again to Daniel Murphy, linking the two Bon Iver albums through cursive. There is undoubtedly an aesthetic overlap between the first two albums, the ‘Blood Bank’ EP, and Justin Vernon’s side project ‘Volcano Choir’. All are dreamy, wintery, ‘woodsy’. However, 22, A Million demonstrates a swerving from this previous identity, and a creation of something almost entirely new. Though there are hints of For Emma in the background (as in ‘29 #Stafford APTS’, where crackling interference in ‘You’ve buried all your alimony butterflies’ causes the falsetto to waver, threatening to fade completely) overall this is a new sound, with a new aesthetic.

In the weeks prior to the release, cryptic images of symbols and numbers appeared, with increasing frequency, on Bon Iver’s Instagram page. These images have since been acknowledged as the work of Eric Timothy Carlson, who has designed all visuals for 22, A Million. And there are a lot of them. According to Carlson, each song began as a number that was then translated into multiple shapes and symbols. Formally, 22, A Million possesses the ‘blown-apart-ness’ of contemporary poetry. Lyrics are shown scattered across the page, interspersed with images, and read more as disparate sensory impressions than as narratives: ‘a womb / an empty robe / enough / you’re rolling up / you’re holding it / you’re fabric now.’

22, A Million is bold and unapologetic. The artwork is a long way from the etherial fragility of Euclide’s painting, or Murphy’s frost. Each song has an accompanying (and often subliminal-feeling) lyric video available on YouTube, making the songs feel less introspective, more accessible. Whilst this new, overwhelming aesthetic might not appeal to all fans, it is successful in reflecting the musical changes in Bon Iver’s work, and in presenting an artist emerging from the woods, to stand more securely in the digital world. 

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