In praise of Bon Iver

Music has always been a big part of my world. Certain songs are forever etched in my memory as proustian markers of different periods or events in my life.  Black Box's cover version of I've Got the Power encapsulates the summer of 1989, when downtown New York felt palpably exciting. All the people I knew were  artists, aspiring photographers, actors, musicians, writers and filmmakers, all of whom seemed to me impossibly beautiful, smart and fascinating. We spent our nights in clandestine clubs that moved locations each week, defying New York's antiquated cabaret laws that strictly forbids dancing in establishment without special permits. The insistent techno beat of the song seemed to match the tempo of the city, accentuated by the hazy humid heat of those summer days. The refrain, borrowed from Public Enemy, resonated with us who had nothing but youth and optimism on our side. A few years later, a little disempowered but still none the wiser, I started a new chapter in my life and finally moved into studio of my own in Little Italy. Night after night, I sat in my tiny empty apartment, contemplating my decision to pursue photography, with no other company than Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music KV477 blasting out of my boom box. I followed the stately notes as they swelled and faltered, feeling by turns encouraged and apprehensive. Those magnificent but somber notes filled me with the intimation that the future was not just a never ending stretch of time ahead, but a finite period with an inescapable end. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music on earth, and it taught me so much about finding those moments of eloquence and sublimity in my life. 

This winter has been another time of soul searching and the music that accompanied me the last few months was Bon Iver's extraordinary debut album For Emma, Forever ago. Bon Iver's story has been told repeatedly as his success and popularity spread through the last months of 2008. At the onset of the winter, on the heel of a major illness and a breakup of his band, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) headed for his dad's remote cabin in the Wisconsin woods. By the time winter ended, Vernon had recorded a debut album that is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. My favorite track is Flume, which moved me to tears when I first heard it. Vernon sometimes performs a spare acoustic version of this song, which feels so raw and intimate. Another version with the added backup of his band, available on MySpace Transmission, is slightly more polished and emotionally haunting. At one point, Vernon just literally bangs his arm on the piano, eliciting some discordant notes that sum up all the yearning in the song. As typical of all his songs, the lyrics, delivered in Vernon's falsetto, hint at but never fully reveal the pains of his journey.  The force of poetry in his entangled words is strangely moving. Flume begins with these words: 
I am my mother's only one
It's enough
I  wear my garment so it shows
Now you know

And it ends with these words:
I am my mother on the wall, with us all
I move in water, shore to shore;
Nothing's more

Only love is all maroon
Lapping lakes like leary loons
Leaving rope burns --
Reddish ruse

Only love is all maroon
Gluey feathers on a flume
Sky is womb and she's the moon

I find the imagery of "gluey feathers on a flume" so vivid and haunting. Perhaps I relate to the songs because they are stripped of any artifice. As Vernon said in an interview, "This record is the most honest thing I've ever done." Part of the appeal of the record is the way it resonates with the difficult, searching time in which we are living. "Records should be records of what's happening, records of events," Vernon claimed. When asked about his next record, Vernon responded, "I need to recreate everything and start fresh, and shed skin, and look under rocks and find new things. Because that's what I was doing. It was a hard search to make this record and to go through these things." That's the best definition for a creative act.

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