Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver”
“It’s an album about memory, about experience, and what it means to look into the past with Vaseline-covered eyes.” -Grafton TannerGrafton Tanner
out of 10
June 17, 2011
The final lines to “Re: Stacks” read, “This is not a sound of a new man/ Or a crispy realization/ It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”
Thus ended For Emma, Forever Ago, the mythic debut by one Justin Vernon, recorded in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, with the endless backstories and tales, under the oft-mispronounced Bon Iver. It is a personal statement and a major work by an artist who had barely skirted the shore of the music world by the time of its release. Three years later, with the world holding its breath and with Justin capable of doing basically whatever he pleased, he released the self-titled mammoth. Horns, saxophones, two drummers, vibraphone, strings, and the Korg M1. A track listing comprised of place names that may or may not exist. A front cover of a painting peeling to reveal images hidden underneath. And that last song, the one that split the indie music world in two (joke? irony? Phil Collins?). It’s an album about memory, about experience, and what it means to look into the past with Vaseline-covered eyes.
My first full run-through with the album Bon Iver (streaming if off NPR’s website) began with me jumping in fright at Justin’s opening line of “Perth.” “I’m tearing up,” he interrupts. I was actually jolted, as if I had fallen victim to the “Lewton bus” in a horror film. It’s somewhat of a punch to the ears, a precursor for what is to come in the opener. Soon there is the war of drums. His multi-tracked vocals cutting through the swirling wash of horns and strings, all building to a phenomenal climax. This isn’t “Skinny Love” or “Flume.” Starting here, it is immediately indicative we are dealing with a different kind of album than For Emma.
But my first taste of Bon Iver was with “Calgary,” streamed online before the release of the full product. The opening sound? Chords on an M1, the go-to-keyboard for late-80’s/early-90’s singers and songwriters. Justin’s voice does not come charging in as in “Perth;” instead, he eases into the piece as drums and other strange guitar noises build. It sounds as though he is constructing the piece as it is being performed. The last sound heard is a distant voice speaking, perhaps through a muffled loudspeaker. It isn’t the only time Justin incorporates certain noises into the album. Blips and beeps pop around shifting guitar drones in “Lisbon, OH.” Static burps in “Hinnom, TX.” A bell rings in “Michicant.” As an arranger of conventional instruments, Justin knows what he’s doing. But his placement of sounds and noise within the space of the album is key.
One aspect of his craft still stands above all else: Justin’s ability to write oblique, gorgeous, onomatopoetic lyrics. A few lines into “Holocene,” and Justin has laid waste to every lyricist around right now. They are rife with the pangs of memory (“3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway/ was where we learned to celebrate”); they function as sound devices (“Fall is coming soon, a new year for the moon and the Hmong here”); and they pull an inner light from the core of being to the surface world with simple and direct words (“I ain’t living in the dark no more/ It’s not a promise, I’m just gonna call it”). Listening to him sing, it can be difficult to discern exactly what is being said, but the inflection and the passion driving his voice fills you with a rush of urgency, as if what is being sung right then is the most important thing you could hear.
I’m harping quite a bit on my personal experience with the record because Bon Iver itself is about the issues involved in writing about history and, in particular, personal history. This theme is most evident in the closer “Beth/Rest.” The song has sharply divided fans and critics because of its clanky, electric piano and dueling guitar and saxophone trills. Playing it for friends and family, the response, “It sounds like the 80’s” has more than once left their mouths. Listening to it several times, I am left with the realization that the piece resembles something that may have been made in the 1980’s, but there are crucial pieces missing. Just as John Maus created a simulation of VCR tape micro-synthpop songs on his We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, Justin wrote “Beth/Rest” as a mere copy of a musical style from a past era.
As a copy, “Beth/Rest,” along with the rest of the album, asserts itself as a piece of historiographical metafiction. Contemporary writings about history focus on fringe characters, events that were swept under the rug, genres that have seemingly died and are considered dated and inauthentic. Writers use these tropes as a way to get at the meaning of the past, yet pieces of information get lost in the passage of time and with the writing and rewriting of memory. They understand history’s trickery and purposely fragment the writings. At the surface, “Beth/Rest” seems like a song yanked from the 80’s, yet different pieces have been forgotten or blurred. There is no bass drum present. No smashing snare drum on beats 2 and 4. Justin’s vocals are far removed and tinted with a kind of vocoder. The lyrics are broken and formless.
It is clear that “Beth/Rest” functions as a part referring to the whole of Bon Iver. At the base, they are both the interiors of Justin Vernon turned outwards. They are snapshots of a musical savant working to the fullest potential. In the year of bedroom chillwave, hyperactive OFWGKTA, skyscraping M83 and Coldplay, Bon Iver releases a work with epic scope and winterly reflection, the kind of marriage most artists strive for their entire careers. And better yet, it is the logical answer to For Emma. It is “the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.” The sound of leaving it all. The sound of your past humming quietly in the snow.