Let’s kick things off with a bold statement: Blood Bank is arguably the most consequential EP of the 2000s. Arriving a year and a half after For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon’s career-making debut as Bon Iver, the short, four-song release looked like your typical EP in early 2009: a means of offloading old tunes, keeping an artist’s name in the public consciousness, and giving writers an excuse to use the word “stopgap.” The songs were mostly written and recorded during the Emma sessions, and Vernon, not incorrectly, believed they didn’t quite fit that album, that they would break its precarious spell.
But Blood Bank, released 10 years ago this Sunday, quickly grew into something much more meaningful and much harder to pin down. It became a punctuation on that early phase in the life of Bon Iver, a way for Vernon to dispel all the unwieldy legends that had grown up around his debut: the log cabin, the Lyme disease, the broken heart, and all the other elements that reinforced the authenticity of a folk album that used production techniques that at the time weren’t widely considered authentic. More surprisingly, Blood Bank became an unlikely holy grail for hip-hop artists, launching a long collaborative relationship between Vernon and a prelapsarian Kanye West.
We’ll get to Ye a little later. First, let’s talk about the three songs on the EP that aren’t “Woods.”
Even in 2009 “Blood Bank” sounded like a pointed and purposeful opener. It’s about two people giving blood, staring at the crimson bags on the walls, contemplating blood as something more than just a metaphor for family and history and possibility. It was — and still is — Vernon’s most concrete set of lyrics, which is significant. Emma had trafficked in impressionistic evocations of loneliness and nature, what Robert Christgau derided as “flights into obscurity.” Who knows what “Only love is all maroon” means, or “Lapping lakes like leary loons,” and who cares? It was the sound of the words that conveyed a sense of isolation and wonder and caution, as though Vernon was trying to find new ways to be a confessional songwriter. He was calibrating language to give just enough away and to stop short of overindulging or oversharing.
By contrast, “Blood Bank” is emphatically cinematic. “I met you at the blood bank, we were looking at the bags, wondering if any of the colors matched any of the names we knew on the tags.” Vernon sings those opening lines in a strained voice, as though he’s looking back with some knowledge he didn’t have at the time; I always heard the song as a eulogy for whoever that “you” is. And that image is unusual in Vernon’s catalog, if not in pop music more generally. The song is somehow mundane and not mundane at all, alive to the nearness of death and infirmity even as it keeps those concerns just offscreen.
By taking such a different approach — by writing what is essentially a story-song — Vernon shows us what kind of artist he is, how malleable the Bon Iver project will be. By contrast, “Beach Baby” repeats but doesn’t redefine. With its fragmented phrases, plaintively strummed acoustic guitar, and falsetto vocals, it would have sounded too much at home on Emma. But it shines a bit brighter on this EP, and I’ve always loved the way the low end of the guitar distorts into a deep, staticky strum. “Babys,” the fourth best song on this four-song EP, is a negligible lyric about fucking on the beach set to a rhythm too sharp to be very useful as babymaking music. Its most outstanding element is its repeating piano theme, a shimmery tick-tock of chords that calls to mind the prismatic variations of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It might be the root of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, a record that’s equally experimental and pastoral.
That brings us finally to “Woods.” If it isn’t his most popular track (it’s not currently listed among his top songs on Spotify or iTunes), it’s certainly Vernon’s most notorious composition, a cascade of distorted vocals, each one uniquely fried and abraded, coalescing into a strange and soulful choir. “I’m out in the woods, I’m down on my mind,” this band of Justin Vernons sing. “I’m building a still to slow down the time.” That’s an almost corny bit of wordplay from a songwriter not known for the humor in his lyrics, yet the image of the man alone in the woods, tending the copper coils and mash barrels to make rough moonshine.
Both anguished and stoic, spare and lush, the song ties together so many disparate styles and traditions: the scenery of folk and country, the layered vocalizing of gospel, the secular testifying of soul, the raw texture of musique concrète, and the complexity of avant garde composition. This was, in 2009, something new, a stunning distillation of Vernon’s experiments on Emma and a very different way of evoking the natural world. (In fact, you could argue for an ecological interpretation of the song, one that ties the distortion and decay of Vernon’s vocals with the pollution of the environment.)
How Kanye West first heard “Woods” is apparently still up for debate. Speaking to Pitchfork in 2010, Vernon theorized it must have been keyboardist and West collaborator Jeff Bhasker who played the song for the rapper, or maybe producer No I.D. Others suggest it was Pedro Winter, head of Ed Banger Records. However the song made its way into his ears, West loved it so much that he embedded it deep within his 2010 instant classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Vernon flew out to Honolulu, where he played basketball with Kanye, rolled joints with Rick Ross, hung out with Nicki Minaj, and set up a station in the studio anteroom. “I’m just a fuckin’ lumberjack dude from Wisconsin,” he told Complex. “I’m not going to go out there and try to be this awesome rap guy.”
“Lost In The World” picks up exactly where “Woods” left off, with that same distorted choir evoking that same loneliness and emotional angst. But Kanye literally rewrites Vernon’s chorus: “I’m lost in the world, I’m down on my mind” may be the most apt self-diagnosis he has ever rapped. Even when that streamlined beat comes in, even when that sample of Gil Scott Heron asks who will survive in America, even when those Burundi drums transition seamlessly into the closing track, that sense of isolation pervades. For Vernon, that sound was about going off the grid to find oneself; for Kanye, it is about having no escape route, no way to connect, no way not to feel alone in the crowded world.
“I think he liked that I had a similar emotional approach to music,” Vernon told Rolling Stone in 2011. He would appear on nearly every subsequent Kanye record of the 2010s — including 2011’s Jay Z joint album Watch The Throne — and the two would even perform at Glastonbury 2015. Kanye introduced him as “one of the baddest white boys on the planet” right before they launched into “Can’t Hold My Liquor” and “Lost In The World.” Their collaboration has been depicted as unusual or unlikely, but that seems to say more about the crossover between hip-hop and indie rock—or, more generally, between black music and white music. Both artists prefer to create in isolation: West’s lost-in-the-woods excursions to Honolulu for Fantasy and to Wyoming for Ye echo Vernon’s three snowy months at that remote log cabin in Wisconsin. And both find in such isolation an answer to or at least a reprieve from the alienation they feel in the world.
Hindsight allows us to see just how influential this modest EP has been over the last ten years, but hindsight also demands we gauge the less savory aspects of this story. Kanye in 2010 is one thing: He was at the top of his game, making hip-hop as pop music rather than hip-hop as high art and releasing one of the most thrilling albums of this century. Kanye in 2019 is another thing: He’s an artist in decline, releasing the first half-assed album of his career and embracing a divisive politician on the basis of celebrity alone. Vernon, meanwhile, has remained a popular presence in hip-hop, contributing to songs by Travis Scott, Vince Staples, and Kid Cudi. Just a few months ago, however, he found himself on the defensive when Eminem released Kamikaze and used a homophobic slur on a track featuring Vernon’s contributions. “Was not in the studio for the Eminem track,” Vernon tweeted. “Not a fan of the message, it’s tired. Asked them to change the track, wouldn’t do it.” Blood Bank turns 10 at a moment when Vernon’s work in hip-hop may be slowing. The field is changing, with younger rappers and producers finding new sounds, new collaborators, new modes of expression.
Similarly, this EP provides a similar point against which to measure the progress of Bon Iver, which has grown from a solo project into something more like a studio-bound collective. In 2012 Vernon told Minnesota Public Radio he might actually shelve the Bon Iver brand. “I’m winding it down. I look at it like a faucet. I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering.” Instead, he relocated it from that isolated log cabin to his April Base Studio outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he worked with a small crew to make 2016’s 22, A Million. That record — along with engineer/producer/April Base guru BJ Burton’s work with Low on Ones And Sixes and especially Double Negative — sprouts directly from the seed of “Woods,” rooted not only in its distressed sound but also in its willingness to distort his and our expectations of what Bon Iver can be.