You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When Justin Vernon of Bon Iver breaks up, we all break down (The New Yorker Festival 2009)

The story of Bon Iver is already approaching the level of myth: the mono, the cabin in the woods, the primitive recording techniques, the crack band he assembled upon his return to civilization. Not to mention the identity of the mysterious Emma. For Emma, Forever Ago is one of those rare albums that carved out a space for itself in the world, and then filled it.

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So is it any more meaningful to get up close and personal with the man who created such songs as "Flume," "Skinny Love," and "Blindsided"? For New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who readily admits he broke down weeping during Vernon's live show at the Bowery Ballroom, and who wrote about it in his feature on Vernon in the December 12, 2008 issue, it is.

Me, I know I could do without the Bon Iver groupies (yes, it's true they exist) squawking about how "'Skinny Love' is so about me and my boyfriend," or the pretentious college undergrads going out of their way to impress Vernon with knowledge of Vernon's own music -- how, exactly, do they expect that to work, again? Personally, I enjoy Vernon's music more when I'm somewhere where I don't have to think about these idiots liking it, too. When I can pretend I'm the only one in the world who also knows what it's like to be snowed in at a cabin in northern Wisconsin, and thinking about another time and place entirely.

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But the good thing about this music is that when Vernon starts playing, you kind of forget there's anybody else in the room, especially when he plays a song he insists will "never be heard again" (Michicant), or Springsteen-esque working-class love ballad like "Hayward," which was in consideration for inclusion on Emma but didn't even come close to making the cut, according to Vernon. And then there's "Flume."

div>Listening to Vernon play, and sing in a falsetto that you must hear live because it sounds Brian Wilson-level impeccable no matter how many Leinies he's supposedly drunk, did NOT make me love everybody in the room. It did perhaps though make it a bit easier to relate to the girl who, when it came time for audience questions, walked up to the mic and asked "I'm just going to ask what I most want to know...who is Emma?" And of course, Vernon's answer was what we all sort of knew..."she's a composite, based on a relationship I couldn't get over." But then he went on to add something that we also sort of knew: "It's really about not being able to move on from a time in your life."

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Vernon said of "Flume," just before he played it, that it was a song, and not just a song but a concept, a feeling, that he woke up to one day, and he's still trying constantly to understand, to swim toward (he really did say "swim," I'm sure of it). And that, I think, is what Frere-Jones understands about making the intensely personal experience of Bon Iver just slightly more public. Because so are we, and Vernon is letting us take that journey with him.

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