Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense.
You look around, and nothing’s the way it was. Friends have grown older and grown apart, loves have gone cold, sunrises are a subtly different color. Worst of all, no one seems to notice the change. Everything feels strange and unfamiliar, and everywhere you look, people are just going about their business, as if the pieces all fit together perfectly. It’s unsettling, disturbing. It’s wrong.
I’ve had one of those weeks. Everything feels out of place. I’ve been sleepwalking through my life for days, distracted and out of sorts. I had an intimate encounter with a UPS truck, and walked away unscathed, but with thousands in damage to my car. I had lunch with one of my best friends, and spent it somewhere else, mentally speaking. Relationships I cherish are falling apart, and I don’t know how to hold on to them.
The world just isn’t making any sense. And I’m hoping that the closer I look at it, the more sense it will make, when I know that never works. You have to stop seeking out the connections, and once you do, they will become apparent.
As usually happens with me, my musical experience this week has mirrored my life. I’ve spent the last seven days trying to figure out my place in the world, and I’ve also spent it trying to decipher the new Bon Iver album. And what’s working for me, right now, is turning off my analytical brain and letting the thing wash over me. Nothing about it really makes sense, but if I just let it happen to me, instead of working my synapses to death trying to understand it, it all works out.
Certainly, the experience of Bon Iver’s new self-titled album is an unexpected one, but if you think about it, it’s no more unexpected than the story so far. In 2006, a then-25-year-old Justin Vernon watched his band break up, his girlfriend leave him and his health deteriorate, all at the same time. So he retreated to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, and he spent three months making an album. It was called For Emma, Forever Ago, and when it was given a national release by Jagjaguwar in 2008, people responded to its warmth and intimacy.
The “cabin story” will probably haunt Vernon until he dies, but it’s a fascinating hook. Who hasn’t wanted to chuck it all, go someplace remote and just make something? Something real, something that reflects the world the way you see it. That’s what For Emma did. It fulfilled that fantasy for countless people, including me. The fact that it was also a well-made, well-observed piece of work certainly didn’t hurt. Seemingly overnight, Bon Iver was a highly-regarded success. And Vernon was left with the eternal question: now what?
Because you can’t make For Emma again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a trick that only works one time. Vernon spent the intervening years making all kinds of directionless weirdness, from the strange EP Blood Bank to the atmospheric Volcano Choir album, to his collaborations with Kanye West, of all people. Anyone looking to his endeavors since 2008 for some notion of where he would go next came away stymied, scratching their heads, bewildered.
Turns out, that’s what he was going for, because upon first listen, his second record is just as mystifying, like looking at a puzzle with a dozen missing pieces. It doesn’t make any sense, that first time. There is literally nothing to connect Bon Iver with For Emma, save Vernon’s voice, and even that is often unfamiliar. Imagine if Iron and Wine jumped directly from The Creek Drank the Cradle to Kiss Each Other Clean, with none of the connective tissue in between. That’s what this is like. It makes me feel like I missed four albums of evolution somewhere in there.
As intimate as Vernon’s first effort was, this one is initially off-putting. Nearly every song is named after a place, either real or imagined, and the lyrics generally have nothing to do with that place. Vernon’s words on For Emma were direct and full of heartache, but here they are abstract, sometimes even random: “It was found what we orphaned, didn’t mention it would serve us picked, said your love is known, I am standing up on it, aren’t we married?” Like the music, the lyrics take some serious parsing.
And the music. I have heard Bon Iver probably 20 times in the past week, and it still sometimes sounds like there are parts missing. It wouldn’t be wrong to call it layered, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a meticulously crafted studio piece, one that can feature a thousand instruments one moment, and the barest whisper of sound the next. Vernon has not written easy folk songs here – this album is practically hook-free, its tunes dense and meandering and difficult.
And yet, it would be a lie to call this record hard work. It’s oblique, it’s fascinating, it’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year, but it’s not a strenuous listen. Opener “Perth” is immediately striking, fluttering to life with one of the most memorable guitar figures I’ve heard in some time. The military-style drums slowly build it up, and before you know it, you’re in the loudest stretch of Bon Iver music ever put to tape. Thunderous, pounding drums supporting electric guitar and a full horn section and Vernon’s infinitely-overdubbed voice. And just like that, it’s over, the reverbed guitars segueing nicely into the Sam Beam-esque “Minnesota, WI.”
Really, I could describe each of these songs, and it wouldn’t mean much. This is an album you just have to hear. I could tell you how lovely it is when the clatter and cacophony of the aforementioned “Minnesota, WI” evaporates, leaving just a finger-picked acoustic and Vernon’s voice, repeating “Never gonna break, never gonna break.” I could tell you that “Holocene” is strikingly beautiful, pivoting on the line, “All at once I knew I was not magnificent.” I could tell you that the repeated piano lines in “Hinnom. TX” and “Wash.” circle back on themselves in ways you don’t expect.
But most of all, I could tell you that this record, with few exceptions, is baffling, and I would never get the true sense of that across to you. Nothing sums it up, however, like the last couple of tracks. “Calgary” is as straightforward as this album gets, if Peter Gabriel-style synth anthems are your definition of straightforward. “Lisbon, OH” is about a minute of wordless atmosphere, and then comes “Beth/Rest,” what will no doubt be the most controversial thing here. It’s an ‘80s power ballad, with cheeseball keyboards, flailing electric guitars and two, count them, two saxophones.
“Beth/Rest” makes no sense the first time you hear it. It’s like Vangelis meets the score for The Karate Kid. It is utterly, head-spinningly baffling. Ah, but that’s just the first time you hear it. Dive in again, and again, and stop trying to figure out why Vernon has done this, and the song will begin to crystallize. And you’ll start to hear it – and the nine tracks that precede it – as oddly beautiful. Keep listening, and it all locks into place. I can’t imagine this album any other way now, and I can’t stop spinning it.
I still cannot tell you how Vernon got from there to here, just like I can’t tell you how my world went from what it was to what it is now. In fact, I’m not really sure knowing that would make much of a difference. Vernon was the guy who locked himself in a cabin and poured out his heartbreak, and now he’s the guy who has meticulously crafted one of the strangest and most compelling records of 2011. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, particularly from an album he self-titled, it’s that he’s not going back. The world will not reverse course. It may never seem normal again, but you have to learn to live in it. Forcing the pieces together will not make them fit.
But if you let it, this record will slowly make itself clear. While it may never unfold logically, it achieves a certain grace, a grandiose yet subtle beauty. And that is, I think, the best we can hope for. Sometimes, the world just doesn’t make sense. Stop trying to understand it, and you’ll see how wonderful it can be. I am learning this every day.
See you in line Tuesday morning.