Vulture Breaks Down Justin Vernon’s Cryptic Lyrics on Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Photo: Charley Gallay/2011 Getty Images
Photo: Charley Gallay/2011 Getty Images

Here’s Justin Vernon, explaining the mysterious lyrics on his critically adored, absolutely terrific new album Bon Iver, Bon Iver: “Every song … sort of drifted towards that theme, [of] tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren’t.” Does that clear things up? No? Of course not! Vernon’s lyrics are intentionally fragmented and surreal; they are meant to elicit feeling, not tell well-constructed tales. (A representative chunk, taken at random: “break the sailor’s table on your sacrum / fuck the fiercest fables, I’m with Hagen.”) But, because sometimes it’s nice when things make a little bit of sense, Vulture has spent the last few days poring over Bon Iver’s lyrics in an attempt to suss out just what the hell it is that Vernon is singing about. Follow along at home with the lyric sheet through a track-by-track lyrical analysis.

1. “Perth”
Vernon himself has explained this one, saying that it’s about an acquaintance who has lost someone close to him. But unspooling the lyrics, we find a B-plot. Forests? Moths? Dust? This is also about the inconveniences of camping.

1. “Minnesota, WI”
While Wisconsin, Minnesota, does in fact exist, we could find no trace of Minnesota, Wisconsin. Vernon’s native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, isn’t too far from the Minnesota border, though, so perhaps he’s referencing some idyllic valley near the border? Or maybe he created a fictional mash-up town to represent an internal struggle between home and the road, known and unknown, East and West? The valley in question also had a stream and some branches and some representatives from the Hmong people, “an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand,” who helped him find religion (“writing scripture”) while wearing a suit of armor. So we’re guessing it’s about the time that Justin Vernon visited a monastery in Vietnam and did some fantasy-LARPing in an arboretum (standard monastery activity).

3. “Holocene”
Here, Vernon takes a break from his usual cryptic wordplay, and we almost get full-on scenes: “you’re laying waste to Halloween / you fucked it friend, it’s on it’s head, it struck the street / you’re in Milwaukee, off your feet.” Then, “I could see for miles, miles, miles.” Pretty clear, really: Vernon is reminiscing about a total rage-fest of a Halloween party at his one buddy’s apartment in Milwaukee, that crazy loft with the sweet view.

4. “Towers”
The line “I’d a tore your hair out just to climb back darling,” along with the title, gives this one away: Justin Vernon fell in love with a real-life Rapunzel, probably a crazy teenage hippie whose parents refused to let her out of the house until she cut her hair. At any rate, she and Vernon shared a summer romance, sneaking in and out of windows and eating a lot of honey, but their love turned sour when Rapunzel switched from weed to booze and started throwing pieces of furniture (specifically: a “sailor’s table”) while hammered. Presumably, she then indulged in a breakup pixie haircut that sent Vernon packing for good.

5. “Michicant”
It was inevitable that Vernon would put his feelings about his time with Kanye on record, and here he does just that. The clues are plentiful: “4 long minutes end,” a.k.a. roughly the run time for “Lost in the World,” Kanye’s take on Bon Iver’s “Woods”; “Hon, it wasn’t yet the spring” — indeed, it was summer when Vernon and Kanye worked together. The major takeaway: While ’Ye and Vernon had a close, special bond, we have to “know it wasn’t wedded love.”

6. “Hinnom, TX”
Hinnom, unfortunately, is not a real town in Texas. The real clue, then, is the reference to “The Noachide,” the set of laws handed down from God to Adam in the Garden of Eden (no idols, no murder, no eating flesh from live animals, etc). Could Vernon be talking about an early Bible camp experience, where campers were forced to wear white, make pottery in harsh work environments (“dirt and ice imbed in cheeks / in the potter’s field”), and believe in God? The experience was a traumatic one for Justin, who failed to make friends (“strangers scattering”) — this is probably why he later went to Vietnam for the arboretum LARPing.

7. “Wash.”
Vernon really tries to trip us up on this one (“same white pillar tone as with the bone street sand is thrown,” whaaaat?), but we still figured it out. He’s singing about climbing and being “savage high,” and someone named Claire with whom he “nearly forfeited” — clearly, this is about climbing Mount Washington, New Hampshire’s highest peak, with a stern but encouraging guide named Claire.

8. “Calgary”
Here is every physical description of the person (a woman, presumably, given the one-piece swimsuit) to whom the song is addressed: “never keep your eyelids clipped … hair, old, long along / your neck onto your shoulder blades … hip, under nothing / propped up by your other one, face … pincher with the skin inside / you pinned me with your black sphere eyes.” So clearly we are dealing with a highly disfigured Canadian zombie woman. As best we can tell, she used Vernon for his sperm (“only for the father’s crib”), took him to an isolated lake, willed up a storm of some sort with her zombie powers, and then set the rest of her friends on him. Luckily, he lived to tell the tale.

9. “Lisbon, OH”
This one doesn’t have words. It’s about snorkeling.

10. “Beth/Rest”
“Aren’t we married?! / I ain’t living in the dark no more / It’s not a promise, I’m just gonna call it.” So Vernon met a lady, they got hitched, they shared “heavy mitted love,” and then it turned out that the stoner friend who married them forgot to get officially ordained online, thus invalidating the marriage. (Just like on Happy Endings, which you should be watching.) Good news: They still love each other, like stars! So, presumably, they held a second, legal wedding, at which everyone danced to Phil Collins albums and then collectively wrote this song.

Vulture Breaks Down Justin Vernon’s Cryptic Lyrics on Bon Iver, Bon Iver