Bon Iver – “Calgary” (MP3)
There’s a paradox in the lyrics of Bon Iver’s sophomore release, the self-titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver – a puzzling balance of poetry and nonsense. The very first verse of album-opener “Perth” lays that conundrum bare; with Justin Vernon’s falsetto front and center, the lyrics border on jaberwockish: “I?m tearing up, acrost your face/move dust through the light/to fide your name/it’s something fane/this is not a place/not yet awake, I’m raised of make.”
Those aren’t typos. A day after Bon Iver, Bon Iver leaked, Vernon’s label, Jagjaguwar, posted the lyrics to the entire album online. And therein lies the conundrum. Because although these lyrics at times seem like Bon Iver chopped up his poems, shook the lines in a hat, and formed stanzas at random, they are truly important. In an extensive interview with Grayson Currin, Vernon cited Richard Buckner’s lyrics as a corollary, finding in Buckner’s work, “lyrics that are totally heartbreaking and beautiful and heavy, but you really couldn’t say exactly what they’re about.” There is perhaps no better quote to describe Bon Iver. Songs like “Michicant” and “Wash.” slip smoothly past the ears and impart an unmistakable emotion, but deciphering the lyrics does little to illuminate the matter at hand.
As Vernon himself admits, this record is a sounds-first album, leading with the how rather than the what. While not a complete sea change, it’s a new approach for Vernon, who finds his Bon Iver project graced with both the tools and the audience for such an approach. For Emma, Forever Ago, the stark and raw album that put Bon Iver on the map, wasn’t just a solo work, it was a work of solitude. While Bon Iver, Bon Iver retains some of that album’s wintery feel, it is clear that there is more communion here. Since For Emma, Vernon has played concerts with Volcano Choir, Gayngs, Kanye West, and a reunited DeYarmond Edison; as the songs on Bon Iver, Bon Iver grew over the past years, it’s clear that Vernon had his ears perked to his surroundings.
Perhaps the best example of Vernon’s growth comes on the album’s third track, “Holocene.” The song’s introduction bears strong resemblance to an earlier Vernon track, “Hazelton,” off of a 2006 EP, but gone is the wounded sharpness in his voice. Instead, the song thrives on subtlety, tying together three disparate tableaus – an alcoholic Halloween in Milwaukee, Vernon’s years in Eau Claire, and a shared joint on Christmas night – with a deft touch that was only hinted at on Vernon’s earlier releases.
Indeed, if there is one coup on Bon Iver that stands above the others, it is Vernon’s ability to fluidly evolve his sound without losing himself in the process. So many variables have shifted since For Emma, and yet Vernon has managed to keep himself grounded. More paradoxes – the coexistence of cocksure fame and endearing humility. Vernon records with Kanye West and Rick Ross in Hawaii, and, at the end of the day, flies home to his small apartment in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It’s no mistake that most of the tracks on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are named after locations; neither is it a mistake that at least three of those places are fictional. If a guy who recorded a solo album in a cabin in Wisconsin can share festival stages with the world’s hottest rapper a few years later, why can’t Minnesota, WI be a place? The world is falling apart, but Bon Iver is holding it together at the center.
I would be remiss to talk about Bon Iver, Bon Iver without mentioning its final, divisive track, the schmaltzy “Beth/Rest.” A quick Twitter search reveals just how two-sided the debate on “Beth/Rest” can be, with the song being crowned everything from career-best to album-ruining. Armed only with a synthesizer, vocoder, and some celestial guitars, Vernon crafts a song that evokes the 1980s, but with a sincerity missing from most ironic homages. The fact that he is able to evoke true emotion and joy from a set of sonics long plundered and left for empty is testament to his talent as a songwriter and courage as a man already stripped naked and unashamed. He’s given us Bon Iver at its most raw and, now, at its most processed. This song, like Bon Iver, Bon Iver, has done nothing but grow on me.
Stream: Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
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tags / Bon Iver, Featured, Justin Vernon
author / Chris Barth