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Bon Iver wasn't born in a vacuum — it took an 'Epoch' to form

Four men sit on a couch with a dark wall behind them. One of them holds an acoustic-guitar case on his lap.
D.L. Anderson
Courtesy of the artist
Before (left to right) Justin Vernon, Joe Westerlund, Phil Cook and Brad Cook started Bon Iver and Megafaun, they made music together as DeYarmond Edison.

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There's a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons wherein Lisa laments that no one listens to kids. Grandpa Simpson, embroiled in a B plot of his own, chimes in that no one listens to old people, either — at which point Homer pops by and cheerfully proclaims, "I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are!" (He then pulls out a can of a product called "Nuts and Gum," which bears the tagline, "Together at last!")

Though I've recently aged out of that vaunted 18-49 bracket, it's hard not to feel culturally super-served — like everyone listens to me! — when I'm unboxing a lavish, five-LP, four-CD box set called Epoch.

A boxed collection of several albums with the title "Epoch" on the cover.
/ Jagjaguwar
Epoch contains five LPs or four CDs of DeYarmond Edison's early and extended output, including live recordings and side projects.

The set is credited to DeYarmond Edison, the Wisconsin-by-way-of-North Carolina band that contained Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and three musicians (Brad Cook, Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund) who would later form Megafaun. But it also collects works from the artists' other collaborations and early projects: a solo Justin Vernon album, songs by a high school-era project called Mount Vernon, live recordings and so on.

Epoch is assembled in lavish detail, including a nearly book-length set of liner notes by the terrific writer (and occasional NPR Music contributor) Grayson Haver Currin.

And, look, I'm used to thinking of box sets as Boomer Fodder, given that they're made for an audience with disposable income, an obsession with the past and a desire for physical media. But here I am, rubbing my grubby mitts all over a box with a $130 price tag, cooing over every rare gem and just beginning to dig into Currin's expansive history of the band.

Am I ... a Boomer now? Is a little voice inside my head saying, "Don't look back, you can never look back"?
Intergenerational warfare aside, Epoch is made for superfans — folks who've loved these musicians' many career highlights, and who now wish to slink under the soil and follow their many-tendriled roots where they lead. Sometimes, that takes us to a song like 2006's "Hazelton," in which Vernon sets an impassioned vocal over the instrumental bed that would be repurposed in Bon Iver's 2011 track "Holocene."

"Hazelton" could easily be a treasured outtake from Bon Iver's classic breakthrough, For Emma, Forever Ago. But Epoch also heads down many early and experimental side roads: You're not two tracks in before you hit Mount Vernon's "Morning," which features a bit of rap-adjacent patter that'll send you hurtling back in time to the heyday of Barenaked Ladies.

I'm still picking favorites, of course. But I'm also reveling in the countless nods to an array of influences — many early tracks reflect a love of Van Morrison, Counting Crows or both — and indulgences.

Epoch is thoroughly enriching my appreciation for the countless ways musicians can evolve, and it's also reminding me that no moment of creative inspiration takes place spontaneously, in a vacuum. We're not born inspired. Inspiration comes intertwined with imitation, with detours, with ideas that do and don't work, with failure. Some of these lyrics aren't even recognizable as Vernon's work, because the writing is so literal; he hadn't yet learned to tap into his more impressionistic, poetic side.

The story of Bon Iver is so ingrained as to become a cliche: Smarting from two breakups — a romantic relationship and DeYarmond Edison itself — Justin Vernon retreated to a cabin in the woods to write his masterpiece, the aforementioned For Emma. What's beautiful about Epoch is how thoroughly it muddies that narrative.

Vernon didn't have a lightbulb flicker over his head, shout "Eureka!" and suddenly find his voice in Wisconsin's north woods; he'd tinkered with inventive musicians for years and toyed with vocal styles ranging from a bluesy growl to the falsetto for which he became known. He just kept doing the work of finding himself, his songwriting voice and his sound. Same goes for Megafaun, which used many of these early recordings as a jumping-off point for records that kept sprawling and searching.

The trouble with tidy legends like the story of For Emma is that they make us want to recreate them — to head off to that remote cabin and then beat ourselves up when we don't write "Skinny Love" right away. Epoch is absolutely a treasure trove for those of us who love these musicians and wish to revel in their early alchemic triumphs. But it's also a great, big, rumpled yet beautifully designed reminder that no artistic identity is born fully formed. In music, as in life, none of us are truly working alone.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a host, writer and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist and guest host on All Songs Considered. Thompson also co-hosts the daily NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created with NPR's Linda Holmes in 2010. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)