On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20


Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

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