Maybe the smartest surprise move by the Village Voice since it put the Hold Steady on the cover in 2005, New York’s alt-weekly newspaper ran a Grammy nominations preview yesterday asking, “Will Bon Iver be the Arcade Fire of 2012?” (Our own Grammy expert Jon Bream also did raise the possibility prior to that.) Despite that foreshadowing, the indie music world seems to be in a state of shock and gawk following the four major nominations announced last night for the Eau Claire, Wis.-based folk-rock star, including record and song of the year.
Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum and other indie-centric sites all lead off today’s news with headlines along the lines of “Bon Iver nominated for four Grammys” (no mention of any of the artists with more noms). Paste magazine noted, “perhaps still feeling the glow from last year’s huge Arcade Fire victory — the award show known more for rewarding pop superstars and beyond-their-prime classic rock icons has shown a surprising amount of love to some of our favorite independent artists.”
Amusingly, though, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram doesn’t even have a mention of its hometown boy’s achievements on its home page (though there is a Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps feature on there). Would five or six nominations have done it?
The real-life Justin Vernon’s impressive showing didn’t stop indie fans from expressing their continued cynicism over the music awards, though. Local photographer and superfan Ben Clark was the first to hilariously tweet, “Who the [expletive] is Bon Iver?” in reference to a blog started last year around the Arcade Fire’s surprise win. And indeed, a similar tumblr site has now started up. Spin magazine mocked the fact that “Bon Iver” was pronounced three different ways during the nominations telecast. Stereogum amusingly postured, “Does this make Bon Iver the Christopher Cross of our generation? Only if he wins.” (Cross famously swept the major categories in 1979, including best new artist; and then… well, you know. I know firsthand that the Texas musician gets ample interview requests from journalists every year around Grammy time).
For his part, Vernon sounded humbled, confused but mostly unfazed. Among the messages last night from his personal Twitter account, @blobtower: “whats the difference between song and record?! ahhH! super weird butterflies! thank's y'all. the badgers are playing UNC. don't forget!!”
For those who don’t know: “song of the year” refers to the songwriting; “record of the year” has to do with the recording/production of a particular song (Bon Iver is not up for the big one, album of the year; when when you see who is, you can't help but think he's lucky to have been left out). Also, the stipulations for best new artists are to have never won a Grammy before, and to have not released more than three albums, though the latter point can be hedged on (see: Shelby Lynne). “Bon Iver” was only Bon Iver’s second full-length.
Locally, the elation is somewhat tempered by a question that was already nagging those of us who are looking toward year-end lists and wrap-ups: Should we consider Bon Iver a “local artist?” While he never really lived in the Twin Cities (aside from crashing on his co-manager/brother Nate’s couch), Vernon has plenty of local ties, from his collaborations with the Gayngs crew and other local musicians to his general attitude that he feels at home here. He saw a lot of his formative concerts here as a young fan, as he noted at his two sold-out Orpheum Theatre gigs in September (mentioning a John Prine show there in particular).
In geographic terms, Eau Claire is actually closer to the Twin Cities than Duluth, and we’ve never hesitated to claim Low, Trampled by Turtles or Charlie Parr as locals. However, unlike those acts and two of last night’s other nominees (Dan Wilson and Mint Condition's Stokley Williams), Vernon did not play here a whole lot in his early years -- although there was that ’07 show at the defunct Uptown Bar. Yes, the one where he was billed as “Ben Iver.”
No matter what, it’s great to see how far Vernon has come wherever you want to say he came from. Now, it will be interesting to see where it takes him. So far, the nominations haven’t exactly sent him rocketing up the charts. The deluxe and regular editions of “Bon Iver” are lingering around Nos. 60 and 65 on the iTunes album chart right now, up 30-some spaces from this morning and no doubt hampered by the fact that there are the two different editions. I can’t even find “Holocene,” the best song and record nominee, among iTunes’ top 200 singles. So there you go.