Yesterday I described discovering Camille. Camille isn’t the first artist I discovered on Spotify. Two weeks ago, I found Bon Iver.
Time for an experiment: Put on a really thin latex glove. Now run your gloved hand under a stream of cold water.
What happens next has always freaked me out, ever since I was a kid, and I realize, as I do it now, that it still does, even today. I am 22 years old, but I still believe in my heart of hearts that my hand is getting wet. I know that, if this were true, latex glove makers would be out of business, but I can feel the cool sensation as water trickles across the back of my hand, can feel the exhilarating chill, and once again I believe that magic has happened, and that cool water has done what nothing else can do – it has defeated latex. My hand is wet. I know it to be true because I feel it! And then…
I peel off the glove, and my hand is cold, a little unsure of its surroundings, vaguely clammy, but immediately I realize it is completely dry. Fooled again. A vague inkling of disappointment. A vague sense of wonder. A grasping attempt to reclaim that feeling from only a moment before – that paralyzing, brain-freeze feeling that everything was different, that up might have be down, that I could have flown, and that water could defeat latex. I do not realize it now, but in a few short minutes I will reclaim this feeling for a blissful hour, and I won’t have to laminate my hand to do it. I’ll just have to sit down. And listen.
I am moving. Moving out, moving on. It is Sunday, July 24th. I have to be out by July 25th. The latex gloves are for cleaning the bathroom. As I stand in front of the mirror peeling off my gloves, I come to recognize that I really do not seem to understand latex gloves, because I feel the need to wash my hands with the gloves on… in order to protect my hands… from the things outside the gloves, which have not touched me because I am wearing gloves. As I move back into the empty bedroom, still marveling at my dry hand, I realize I may be losing it.
Moving can make me a little stir-crazy. When I get stir-crazy, I get clinically philosophical. Can’t help it. Your room is empty, and so the place you’ve lived for the past considerable period of your life seems suddenly stripped of all value and familiarity. If you are like me, you realize for the first time in months that you have a carpet, four white walls –
that stripped of posters and dirty clothes, this is all there is. This is all there has been. That’s heavy. Plus, you’re exhausted. And parched. Nothing about moving is good. It is all bitter emotions and sweat you would rather not waste on staircases and long forgotten knick-knacks.
To get me through it with some measure of joy, I have enlisted the help of Beyoncé Knowles. Her new album, 4, is playing from the computer on the bed, which is the only thing left standing in the room aside from a chair in the corner. Good stuff. Queen Be’ is captivating, and her music is bouncy and driving enough to get me through this. Every once in a while, a really great Beyoncism – some great vocal trick or a lyric filled with “I am the queen of you universe!” attitude – will make me pause and giggle. Still, it’s tough to stay focused. I’ve never been an album person. Somehow, the stringing together of pop songs in some arbitrary order has never captivated me. It’s one of the largest gaps in my pop culture portfolio – I’ve never really been able to sit down and listen to an
album as an album. Even now, much of 4 goes in one ear and out the other without much effect, all this despite the fact that I adore many of the songs on it individually. This is not because I am busy moving. This is definitely not because Beyoncé has created something
that is anything short of wonderful and captivating. This is because I’m me. Too bad.
4 ends, and I’m a little surprised there is no more. Albums… Sigh…
Well I need something to get me through the last stretch of moving things downstairs – something that’ll fill my room with sound, but that I’ll be able to leave behind as I head downstairs to do some organizing. Not background music per se, but something a bit more ambient then Beyoncé. Something to keep my spirits up as I move about freely.
I choose wrong. I choose Bon Iver by the band Bon Iver. Here is what I know about Bon Iver on July 24th,2011, before “Perth,” the album’s first song, starts. Bon Iver is a dude whose name isn’t actually Bon Iver. It’s a nom de song. He had written sad music, but then he worked with Kanye on something and now his music is vaguely less sad. The people at NPR and Slate worship him without even an ounce of shame. His name is not pronounced how I thought it was. It took me a while to realize that the Bon Iver (which I pronounced Bahn EYE-vur) I kept seeing in best of lists was the same as the Bone ee-VEHR I kept hearing about on podcasts. His new album is very good, but hard to parse, at least according to “All Songs Considered.” This is it. All I know.
That’s all I had needed to know to star it on Spotify for later perusal. Why do I put in on now that I need a soundtrack for moving? Probably because, while flipping thorough magazines at Books-a-Million yesterday, I saw an article about him, either in Rolling Stone or Spin, I can’t remember which now. Something about a cabin and more heavy praise, from what I gathered from my quick glance. This is an interesting character. Worth a spin, even if I end up not being entirely captivated.
I queue up Bon Iver and “Perth” begins playing. Like an old record, it takes its time before it starts, some faint scratching. About nine seconds of tense silence. Then, an arrival
– a low chord that really resonates.
It enters my system slowly. Bon Iver’s opening guitar riff would be grandiose and uplifting if it weren’t so mournful and pensive. There is something vaguely demented and
unnerving about the way the guitar slides up the scale at the exact moment you
do not expect it to, a jump that doesn’t so much shock me as make me wonder,
“Why then? What’s got you down, Bon Iver, that you make the happy guitars sound
so sad?” They seem to want to go somewhere, they’re uneasy, but they are
trapped, hitting a wall. The sound is warm, but a warmth that makes me look
down at my feet and sigh. Then, before the guitars are allowed to crescendo and
exit the purgatory of mourning they have built for themselves, a chorus of
angels joins them. They seem to surround the guitars, lifting the guitar melody
up to where it belongs, enveloping it in a sound that can support the sudden
jump, redeem it, and make it sound revelatory. Ever so faintly, I hear a
military snare drum beat, a shubada-dum-shuba-dum-shubaduba- dum that invades
my consciousness as it grows louder, taking over the guitars and reinforcing
the angels. Strength in numbers. The sadness isn’t gone, but it’s moving
somewhere now. And then, a minute in, the voice.
I can’t tell whether the voice says “I’m tearing up,” as in I am being torn apart, or “I’m tearing up,” as in I possess the tears one gets from crying. It hardly seems to matter. It’s how the voice sounds. That’s all that matters. That is what jolts me. Both tears seem to apply. This is the voice of a shredded man, a man in complete control of conveying sensitive emotion through a falsetto that seems almost out of control with emotion.
I feel hypnotized. This must be what being hypnotized is like. I hear everything but can grab a firm hold of nothing, least of all what I was doing before “Perth” started. There are layers of intricacy, and I get folded in somewhere between the drums and the harmonizing angels and that voice, that pleading moan. The best way I can think to describe it is painful
cooing. The singer is in so much pain, he cannot even bear to annunciate. Annunciating would be too painful. Even forming coherent thoughts seems to elude him, because his pain is that great.
I snap out of it a little. What was I doing? There are boxes… Tape… Oh, right, packing, moving. I reach for the box, snapping out of my haze, realizing I’m on a tight schedule here, I can get lost in this album later when I’m not so busy and I have more…
2:33 into “Perth,” according to my Spotify player: my computer essentially explodes with sound. I stop. What box? What tape? I am looking at the computer as if it will have an answer for what is happening. When the horns, full and regal, literally blast their way into the auditory palate that is assaulting my moving plans and my brain activity, I chortle with glee. My hand goes slack. I lose track of time. I only think about that voice as it dances across an immense range of emotions — as it glides from guttural rhythmic chants to falsetto wails effortlessly on “Minnesota, WI.” Banjoes, lightly strummed, married with a thumping bass line that feels like a kick to the shin. “Never gonna break!” the voice insists over and over again. I believe him. That voice never breaks, and my undivided attention never breaks from it.
Remember that lonely chair in the corner? About forty minutes later, I am sitting placidly in it, staring at the back of the computer, the last note of “Beth/Rest” hanging in my head like the last moment of a dream I am already starting to forget. The logic of the dream really only made sense in my subdued state. I can’t grasp it now that I am waking up. My whole body feels like that hand in the latex glove. I have just been immersed. I did
nothing but listen, hanging onto every note like it was the one that might change the world. I didn’t rewind or pause anything, didn’t go downstairs, didn’t move. I feel like I have been through an ordeal, a mental exercise. The experience must have changed me, there must be some trace, some mark left behind, because I felt myself being changed. I know it. I felt it.
Nothing. I am dry. Up is still up. I cannot fly. Latex still beats water. What just happened? Bon Iver is the type of record, it seems, that profoundly affects you while you listen
to it and bask in its glow, but confounds you deeply once you step away from it
for a moment and try to process what you just experienced. That voice still
echoes in my brain, but I have no idea what on earth it was saying. I can’t hum
any of the melodies. I can’t put a finger on exactly what moved me. I suck at
this. I listened to the whole thing, thinking only about the art, but afterwards, the only effect I feel is the profound insistence within my being that an effect must have been had. A vague inkling of disappointment. A vague sense of wonder. Albums… Sigh…
What was I doing before that voice hypnotized me? Boxes… Tape… Dammit!
It is August 3rd, two weeks later. I am moving again this weekend. (Two weeks ago, I moved out. This weekend, I am moving in. Yes, this does in fact suck.) I am chilling after work, calming myself before another move overtakes my life, depressing me and tiring me.
I now know much more about Bon Iver now. I know the cabin story. (Justin Vernon recorded his first album alone in a hunting cabin after a crushing heartbreak, a story that music legends are made of. He released that album, For Emma, Forever Ago, as Bon Iver.) I know that the Bon Iver I heard on Bon Iver is not just a sad dude. Bon Iver is now a band of nine musicians led by Justin Vernon, who people still call Bon Iver now anyway. I have listened to For Emma, Forever Ago. I have fallen in love with the achingly beautiful cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I have listened to Bon Iver, the album I first heard two weeks ago while moving, about ten times.
I understand the worship now.
I am listening to an NPR recording of Bon Iver’s concert at a club in Washington D.C that took place last night. It is on the NPR home page. I told you, they love this guy. The story accompanying the stream claims that “the love for Justin Vernon and Bon Iver at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club was so overwhelming for this performance, it seemed fans might storm the stage and eat the humble frontman alive.” The clubs sparse lighting revealed “the faces of a thousand or so glassy-eyed fans who mouthed the words to every song and swayed in a state of pure bliss.” Both the NPR announcer at the show and
the recap article describe the show as the best and most transfixing performance ever put on at that club – this praise coming from men who must see a LOT of concerts!
This blissed-out, transfixed appreciation is not god worship. Justin Vernon is not a rock god. He is, rather, like us. (Unless we happen to be rock gods, in which case, as was already established, he is not like us.) He is, in popular myth, a literal facsimile for us at our most vulnerable and our most brilliant. Great art coming from immense pain. It is why we attach so to the myth (a myth not in the sense that it did not happen, but in the sense that the story has transcended its own underlying truth to become folk legend) of his being so heart-broken that he jerry-rigged together a beautiful, haunting album in an
isolated hunting cabin. These are the actions of a flawed, scarred deeply hurt man. Gods do not scar, are above pain, they transcend it. Gods can do no wrong. Justin Vernon, in myth, cannot get a single thing right, least of all his own heart. The only thing he can get right is his music.
In this sense, isn’t he more broken country crooner then almighty pop star? This is what I think as I hear him joke softly and humbly with his enraptured audience. Justin Vernon is, after all, when he speaks and stands there, not extraordinary in any discernable way. Bearded and ordinary-looking, he sounds and looks like Bob from the corner cubicle at your office if Bob had really messy hair. He likes to perform ballads with his eyes closed and his hands in his pockets. The judges on Idol would eat him alive (a more daming argument against Idol cannot be made). When Vernon tells his fans repeatedly “I love you,” I hear a husband softly reassuring his wife that what they have is real. That it means
just as much to him as it means to her. Justin Vernon is no rock god. He’s a pop artist – emphasis on artist.
His art is engrossing, fascinating and impossible to fully and completely understand no matter how much you play it on repeat. You will never listen to a Bon Iver record and, at its conclusion go, “Oh, that time I got it! I’m done!” Isn’t this better then what I asked it to be when I first finished it? Isn’t the fact that Bon Iver is unknowable, that it still surprises as much the second or tenth or hundredth time as it did the first time, the mark of something truly great? Can I sing it back to you? Can my acapella group recreate it for kicks like we can Lady Gaga or Katy Perry hits? I don’t think so! Would I ask my friends to duplicate a Picasso or refilm an Eisenstein film and hope for good results? I don’t think so! A great work of art is one of a kind. Its measure of greatness is not in fact how many people can hum along and accord themselves well. My mistake in evaluating Bon Iver’s effect on me was using this shoddy metric – because I cannot feel a discernable effect right
away (the ability to hum it back, the ability to dance along), because I do not understand every intricacy upon first perusal, does not mean the art is wrong. I am not wrong either. We have to meet somewhere in the middle.
That takes effort. How much pop music does these days? Not a lot. I’m glad for the effort – for music that makes me sit down and process it for the beautiful parts of it that affect me, and that doesn’t just flit through my head, tell me a sad story, give me a processed melody I can repeat to my friends. (I want to reinforce that just because Beyonce’s music isn’t getting this analytical treatment does not mean that I think it is mindless pop music meant only to make me hum along. 4 also rewards repeat listens, is extremely rich, and can be confounding.)
That is what I think the audience in that recording is so blissful about. It’s what I am so blissful about. It is, first, appreciation when the music is off and the simple artist greets the masses, appreciation for sharing such a rich and fun experience with them. And then it is rapt immersion when the music is on, and warmth of Bon Iver’s music puts the listener back under a spell. It is addicting. It makes little sense when you scrutinize it, but when that music is coming at you, you feel like your hand is wet even when it is not. The dream state takes over and once again, up is down and you can fly and water defeats latex and, best of all, music doesn’t need to make for easy listening to be great, beautiful music. Since I have written this, I have listened to Bon Iver for what is probably the eleventh time. Still confused. Still unsatisfied. Still amazed. I’ll probably dive back in for a twelfth time in a few minutes. My hands will go slack, and whatever I am doing, I will stop. Thank goodness for that.