'Bon Iver': A Breakdown of the Album's Visual Aids (Video)

Bon Iver publicity 2011 P
D.L. Anderson

The music of Justin Vernon has the ethereal quality of a beautiful piece of art. No wonder the Bon Iver frontman released a collection of short films to accompany his critically-acclaimed album. THR takes a closer look at the series, which recently debuted on YouTube.

Almost as stunning as the 10 tracks on Bon Iver’s second album, released in June, is the record’s cover art, created by ethereal painter Gregory Euclide and inspired by the music of Justin Vernon. Consider it part one of a visual accompaniment to the frontman’s meditation on place, with each track representing a unique location in space and/or time, while part two consists of a series of short films (not to be confused with a music video), which premiered on Youtube this week. Largely shot in the Midwest -- specifically Minnesota, Vernon’s home state, and Wisconsin, where the album was recorded, a few of the clips momentarily take us elsewhere, like “somewhere in Wyoming” and Australia’s Byron Bay, but as visual aids go, Bon Iver remains tethered to the land that initially inspired it. Here, a breakdown of each track’s film. Watch them all in succession at the band’s Youtube channel.

Directed by Isaac Gale and David Jensen
Cinematography by Justin Vernon
Filmed over Western Minnesota

Those who prefer a window to an aisle seat on an airplane should be familiar with the view that opens the video for “Perth.” Farmlands, cut into squares from above, and houses fill a jet window. But the directors merge the images, manipulating them into abstract, hallucinatory shapes as the track builds in intensity. In other words: it’s essentially what you would see if you took acid before flying over Minnesota.

"Minnesota, WI"
Direction and cinematography by Dan Huiting and Ryan Thompson

Leaves and plants take on holographic form in this track, a number dedicated to the marriage of places that have shaped Vernon’s work. The sparkle of lights on brightly colored dew drops mirror the jingle in the instrumentals as Vernon croons “Never gonna break / Never gonna break,” but as the chorus drops back out, the leaves and drops become color ink swirling in water. In the end, leaves reappear in ghostlike form, perhaps the filmmakers’ way of emphasizing the truth in the chorus.

Direction and cinematography by Dan Huiting and Andre Durand
Filmed in Gooseberry Falls, MN

The hauntingly lovely video for “Holocene,” shot in Iceland, is in many ways the perfect companion piece to the track. Here, the song’s melody follows the movement of water as it wavers in an arctic ocean and drips from icy rocks, the view of a grey-ish blue winter landscape congruent with the landscapes in the former video. Later, the water becomes icicles, mirrored in form as trees. It’s difficult to contest the stark, emotionally compelling narrative of this number’s film, but certainly watching ice water flow is an apt secondary means of visually experiencing the serene song.

Directed by Dan Huiting and Ryan Thompson
Cinematography by Ryan Thompson and Jesse Cairnie
Filmed in Minneapolis, MN

“Towers” is one of the peppier tracks on Bon Iver (which is to say, you won’t break into tears instantly) and its visuals are equally upbeat -- in a roundabout way. Here, the camera pans over and under blooming flowers, pristine in the light of spring, but as the film progresses, the blooms wither and decay, falling brown into the earth, only to be reborn as the sun rises again. The flowers, bright and buoyant, live again. Too generic of a metaphor? Maybe, but it sure looks pretty.

Direction and cinematography by Isaac Gale and David Jensen
Filmed in Fall Creek, WI

This is the first of several films shot at Fall Creek, a place that appears to be perfectly Midwest, a rural expanse of farmland and nature. In this clip, mirrored shapes hang over rainy landscapes and a bag of light is dragged around in the fields. It’s almost like a Rene Magritte painting set in motion, the surreal elements seeming to both disrupt and meld into the untouched landscape.

"Hinnom, TX"
Directed by Isaac Gale, David Jensen
Cinematography by Isaac Gale
Filmed somewhere in Wyoming

There is no denying a universal truth about music: It always sounds better while driving. Better yet, if the road itself possesses the look of the Instagram app with the essence of Bon Iver. “Hinnom, TX,” though not a narrative exploration of its namesake, takes the viewpoint of the driver, the sun rising in the distance as the viewer travels down a barren expanse of Wyoming asphalt. Here, the meditation is on that sun, which we watch both rise and set over the course of nearly three minutes. If only this is what everyone’s commute looked like.

Directed by Isaac Gale
Cinematography by Justin Vernon
Filmed at Hidden Beach in Byron Bay, Australia

Vernon takes a camera to the beach in this clip, the shot angling towards his feet as he pads through the sand and lets the waves wash over his ankles. Water droplets cover the lens, blurring the view of the sea until eventually the camera is submerged. In all honestly, those drops are distracting, an impediment the viewer will want to reach up and wipe off their screen. It’s unclear why this is the lone video shot outside the U.S. (particularly as Bon Iver has been touring internationally so much this fall) and, sadly, it’s not the deluxe edition’s finest moment. Where it should be the album’s most intimate act, as Vernon himself controls the camera, it’s not quite that either.

Directed by Isaac Gale and David Jensen
Cinematography by Isaac Gale, David Jensen and Justin Vernon
Filmed in Fall Creek, WI

Back in Fall Creek, the vast landscape of "Michicant" narrows into a location microcosm. Close-up images veer into abstraction as colored shapes bounce across the screen. It’s the sort of visual you normally see onstage, enlarged on a giant screen behind the band, but here the extreme zooms on grasses and the lines on a hand contain a more striking closeness. Plus, the bag of light from the preceding film makes a cameo.


"Lisbon, OH"
Direction and cinematography by Isaac Gale and David Jensen
Filmed in Fall Creek, WI

“Lisbon, OH” takes the viewer inside, opening in a long, dark hallway (please don’t let this be a horror film!). Eventually, light and smoke move around, reflecting the synth blips from the disc’s only instrumental track. As it turns out, a single hallway can take on many forms when only shifting the slightest environmental circumstances. And, thankfully, no ghosts pop out.

Direction and cinematography by Isaac Gale and David Jensen
Filmed in Fall Creek, WI

Smoke takes center stage again, this time colored and sifting through trees at night. The movement of the plumes, which shift from pink to yellow to white, is shadowed by the motion of the song itself, particularly as the image becomes a mirror, splintering like a kaleidoscope. It’s a beautiful, meditative image, but ultimately the question it raises is this: How did Bon Iver get the smoke monster from Lost for a walk-on role?

Twitter: @THRMusic