Here’s to Warm, Wintery Nights by the Fire with Bon Iver
My husband has a rare, what one would call “eclectic” musical taste.
He would say it is owed to his many years working as a recording engineer where he encountered loads of different bands, musical influences and sounds. I think it’s owed to his quirky personality – paired with a strong penchant for nostalgia – Ryan loves a good old “bootstrap-pulled” bona fide band. He’s a purist in his own right. On his behalf, I’ve listened to many a screaming metal singer over the years (ones like those fronting The Dillinger Escape Plan, Refused and Between the Buried and Me), as well as some math core, prog rock and punk revivals. But in the same breath, I’ve also listened to the likes of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky – melodies that are far more serene and symphonic in nature.
Somewhere toward the latter, you’ll find Bon Iver.
A part indie, part folk, part exploratory-soundscape 5 member group founded by Justin Vernon – a singer songwriter hailing out of Wisconsin. Vernon’s abstract yet poetic approach to lyric and melody initially captured my intrigue back in 2009; Bon Iver had collaborated with St. Vincent for a track on The Twilight Saga: New Moon Soundtrack. Yes how odd is that? And yes I was late to the party. Cue all critical smirks, snide comments and eye rolls. Cringing and wincing to follow.
Truth be told the song “Roslyn” is utterly beautiful.
Truth be told it led me down the so-called rabbit hole that is Bon Iver and I am eternally grateful – accounting for cinematic taste or not. Together, Ryan and I developed a shared love for the haunting melodies, trill guitar, and obscure, beautiful lyrics apparent on both “For Emma, Forever Ago” and “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” – but never before has my musical curiosity been so poignantly piqued as it was the first time he played me their new record: “22, A million“.
And in a good way – different from anything I’d ever heard.
It appears that in the 5 year mini-hiatus that the band took from performing they’ve created yet another brilliant soundscape, a rough, raw depiction of uncharted territory. The record itself sounds edgy and new, but also somehow old and classic – like it was created, broken, and then pieced back together again. It mixes many different elements of sound, each sat alongside beats and melody which are then interwoven with various vocal tracks and nuances – some distorted and anamorphic. The result is this kind of living, breathing sound space with texture and personality.
In his review of the album for NPR, Bob Boilen too notes of the departure, reporting merely a “smattering of guitar” (the perfect adjective to convey the tone of the record) as opposed to the smooth silk of records past. In remarking upon the 10 year span from the group’s first album to now, Boilen states that “Bon Iver has filled the spaces in its sound with stimulation and surprise” describing the feel as “at once fragile and muscular” which is just so beautiful. After reading this line again, I’m inclined to feel his description applies not only to the sound, but all too perfectly describes Vernon himself.
Upon encountering unimaginable fame with the success of their first two album releases, the band – and perhaps more specifically, Vernon – slipped into a sort of “inner storm”, struggling to come to grips with what had become of the dream of making music he had envisioned as a kid in high school. With an open and eloquently penned essay now posted to the band’s formal site, band mate (and high school comrade) Trevor Hagen sheds some light on the hiatus, sharing insight into the mental anguish that Vernon experienced upon the unexpected catapult to musical fame and the burnout of touring and performing. He explains the meaning behind “22” as a symbol of the duality that continuously runs throughout Justin’s life – “a million” signifying the rest of the world and the infinite search for meaning each of us must face. Whether or not we ever uncover the true understanding is yet to be told, and Hagen goes on to write that the new album is a testament to the search – it’s not merely the sound, but how the album “felt”, “what it was about: the power of human connectivity through music”.
I couldn’t wait to hear it.
Just before we placed the freshly opened record onto the turntable, I was chopping vegetables in our cozy little kitchen – Ryan just inside the archway giving me the full narrative and background of the album’s production from start to finish. Total music nerd. Though there are times when I protest, in this case I would say that the making and mechanics of the album are fascinating and quite conducive to navigating its landscape. You see, Vernon is quite the complex dude. Just following the debut of the new album in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (the first public, full-length airing of the recorded version), he held a press conference to clue everyone in on what the fuck he was talking about.
A press conference. Which is just amazing. I’m already impressed.
Vernon describes the album as a need to get out of the same sullen cycles of sadness that some of his previous records embraced and “bash things apart a little bit and break through some stuff”. He goes on to state that he “needed it to sound a little radical to feel good about putting something out in the world”.
We completely understand.
Seated amidst journalists in a restaurant at the Oxbow Hotel, the singer-songwriter goes into not only the meaning behind the songs, but also their pronunciation, inspiration – even the album’s dedication. He also discusses how his most recent collaborations with artists like Ryan Olson and Kanye West (who knew?) really re-shaped the fabric with which he began to write. Vernon states that people like Ryan and Kanye can really “show you how to be yourself more…It makes you stand up taller and improve yourself” – each’s influence surfacing throughout the detailed, sonic mural in boldness of beat, risk, and unabashed brute force.
He also responds to an inquiry surrounding the use of an uncredited Stevie Nicks sample – to which he replies that it was from his favorite youtube video of her “warming up in 1981 getting her hair did and singing her song ‘Wild Heart'” – a track he felt was never “properly recorded”. For an excellent write up of this press conference and not to mention wonderful read (including this alleged youtube video of Stevie singing – which might I add you absolutely must see – I cried.) please see Steve Marsh’s article for Pitchfork here.
There are also credits to a couple of gospel tunes paid homage with sampling – another testament to qualms with religion and the search for meaning and understanding of one’s self. In another excellent article posted to Pitchfork, contributing author Amanda Petrusich describes the record as “personal” – one that contemplates “how to move forward through disorienting times”. She notes his use of religious language “to express anxiety” and comments on an apparent “crisis of faith” as he lets go of establishment – both literally and metaphorically. See the full article and review here.
Not only was the album a departure for the band’s most recent sound, it boldly introduced a new instrument into the mix; inspired by colleague Francis Starlite’s work on a vocal “auto-tuning” program called a prismizer, Vernon prompted a meeting with his sound engineer Chris Messina to somehow alter the software so that it could harmonize vocals and instruments live, in real time. (For more on the band’s nuveau instrumental approach via a wonderful article by Hau Hsu at the New Yorker, click here). “The Messina” – aptly named for their sound engineer’s creation – is responsible for giving the new sound its textured, layered edges. It also explains why it sounds strange and yet familiar all at once.
For me, the first listen was jarring. Cacophonic.
In all honesty, I fully recommend an indirect approach. Let it be the soundtrack as you are chopping vegetables – or folding laundry – or putting away dry dishes. Introduce it as a scenic backdrop instead. There is so much happening that at first listen it’s almost too much to take in. Overwhelming. You miss the nuances because you’re merely trying to keep up.
By the 3rd and 4th take (this is how we listen to new records in my house) I was completely hooked. I started to anticipate the twists and turns, to exhale with each hum and drone – relish in the crackles and breaks – to actually feel it and hear it.
It it’s entirety, it’s like a subliminal, haunting, hypnotizing lullaby.
And I love it.
I love that the artistry of it speaks for itself, but in discovering all of the thought, innovation, pain, questioning, frustration, perseverance, collaboration, and pure love of creating music that went into the making of the album I am all the more willing to say it is absolutely a journey worth taking. It is an experience. And I am so pleased that my music nerd of a husband included me on this adventure, because weeks later when we would have the privilege of attending his show live – it became just that –
A complete experience.
There inside Copley Symphony Hall, as the first note struck, the journey was underway. I’ve never been more enveloped, more consumed by a sound in all of my concert going memory. The sheer volume of pleasantly melodic, droning noise – it’s ability hang suspended in the air around my face and limbs – was something that I will never forget. And the echo of the voice, it’s pitch, it’s layers, still echoes for me now.
Reading that back to myself, it sounds weird. Maybe it is weird. But everything seems weird at first, before you get to know it, to understand it –
Before it is awesome.
So whether you are chopping vegetables in your kitchen, sitting cozily by the fireside, or seated inside a theater filled with the vibration of human connection through music – give something that is new and maybe even a little weird a chance. Join in the infinite search for understanding that we all embark upon together and let a little artistry enlighten your journey.
Ryan and I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.
What a Winter it will be.
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