When do you “know”? What does it feel like to “get it”? Why only sometimes does it all “feel all right”? Life is a funny thing, a color with its own shade depending on the view. It’s definitively indefinable. But sometimes someone has something to help those who can plug in a way to help us all understand. That’s why we have art. One of the branches of that tree is music. A few leaves from that arboretum mean a whole lot in the scheme of Things. They don’t come along often, but when they do, there is no mistaking it.
Welcome to Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
If that introduction seems a bit boastful, bombastic, and a bit melodramatic – wait until you hear the album. It’s that good. Bon Iver’s sophomore outing, sort of doubly self-titled with its Bon Iver, Bon Iver label, opens with the soft sway of loose wind chime-age and an eye-opening guitar riff on “Perth.” After a rigid drum roll sneaks into play, the now famous lead man Justin Vernon’s falsetto breathes life into the instrumental exploration into our ears: “Move dust through the light / To fide your name / It’s something fane… This is not a place, not yet awake.”
The theme of the abstract lyrics – pairing words together that aren’t even words – to construct a harmonious dream-like song state begins here and flows through the rest of this album. It’s an album that is more like a misty mountaintop in the mind or a hidden cove of consciousness than just a music record. The first song flows into the next, never stopping, just reassessing its mood. Into the unconscious aura and synthesized organs and strings of “Minnesota, WI,” and then into the angelic instrumental and vocal pulsations like an oncoming realization in “Holocene” and the sly, syncopated lyrical delivery over a setting of bells and horns on “Michicant.” He sings: “Hung up in the ivory / Both were climbing for a finer cause…” and “Love can hardly leave the room… With your heart.”
And then, at the end, Bon Iver makes sure you’ve been listening. The final two tunes on the album change gears for a solemn sampling story told through thick synthesized structure that brings out all the emotiveness and ethereal landscapes of the mind, body, and soul. They sit together, look in each other’s eyes, and listen. The swooping pad opener of “Calgary” summons all the spaces between the closure of eyes and the opening of the mind, breaking into a soundscape mixing tribal drums and swirling strings. “Sold, I’m Ever… Open ears and open eyes / Wake up to your starboard bride / Who goes in and then stays inside… Oh the demons come, they can subside.”
Finally, we arrive at “Beth/Rest.” Citing some of his favorite songwriters, Bruce Hornsby and Bonnie Rait, the track opens with a heart-wrenchingly epic and synthesized piano riff straight from the soundtrack to the coming-of-age movie they never made about your life. A cocktail of soulfully sweet vocals, electric guitar licks, and those telling keys, Vernon sends his heart to you with his words yet again. This time it’s for good, clasping your hand through your ears straight through the radio speakers. Like when you listened to music in high school, this one speaks right to you. He finishes halfway through the runtime, letting the sounds carry you back home. “Our Love is a star, sure some hazardry… For the light before and after most indefinitely.”
It’s the end of an epic that no listener who understands it will soon forget. The last time something this true and right happened was Radiohead’s Kid A in 2000 – what a way to open the millenium. Now that it’s happened again on Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it’s only fitting it’s a decade later. Times have changed, but sounding this good hasn’t. And “knowing,” “getting it” and “feeling all right” always will.