Bon Iver In New York, 2016
If all art is about the artist, it is equally true that all art is about you as well. When Justin Vernon locks himself in a cabin in the woods to ruminate about a breakup, is it your break up that interests him? Like his musical ancestors, Laurel Canyon Highers Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and David Crosby, does his art make his pain more important, and more illusive, than ours, or is it ours? Those are the questions raised at the solipsistic yet all encompassing Bon Iver concerts I went to over the past three days. The Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday, December 10th and Kings Theatre last night, December 12th, 2016. I went to Saturday’s gig a fan of Bon Iver, whom I saw at Radio City Music Hall in 2012 (here) but whose current album, 22, A Million, left me baffled. 22, A Million is an electronic mindfuck whose meaning is… what does it mean? I don’t have the time or the inclination to discover whether
“(All these years)
There I find you marked in constellation (two, two)
There isn’t ceiling in our garden
And then I draw an ear on you
So I can speak into the silence
It might be over soon (two, do, two)
(It might be over soon) two, two”
means anything much. Here is Justin’s explanation according to to the New York Times “[Vernon] has always been drawn to the number 22. While growing up and playing sports, he chose it as his sports jersey; he also, he said, sets wake-up alarms to 22 minutes after the hour. As he chopped up the phrase “It might be over soon” in the sampler, “soon” began to turn into “two, two”. Well, we all have our idiosyncrasies but at what space and time do you just head head first into pretentiousness?
Or how about this from “715 – Creeks” , this makes more sense, right?
“Oh, then how we gonna cry?
Cause it once might not mean something?
Love, a second glance
It is not something that we’ll need
Honey, understand that I have been left here in the reeds
But all I’m trying to do is get my feet out from the crease”
Break up 101 -heart shaped bruise time. It made me think of his ex, singer songwriter Kathleen Edwards, who retired in 2014 to run a coffee house in Ottowa called, hahaha, Quitters. In an interview with Laura Barton for the Guardian in September Vernon said “If I stop doing the music thing, I could see myself doing something like this, man,” he says, taking in the room: the 14 seats, the waitresses filling cups, the sound of Fall Out Boy on the stereo. “Open a small breakfast joint, play the music I want, maybe have shows in it at night; people could drink whiskey. That sounds like my dream.” Kathleen seems to hide behind the songs Justin has just written, much the same you hid behind that quote. The woman who compared the couple to sidecars, but left because she’d had enough. There is a wrenching sadness about the break up, and anybody who admired Kathleen, can see why -that tough and sweet is rare. It’s admirable. Justin writes well about women, he was a women studies minor in college, and certainly his writing is fused with the way losing love feels like ruptures in time. The Kathleen-Justin story won’t be told except elliptically, a man who would reject being photographed with an asinine “faces are for friends”, isn’t open to persuasion on the details. But on Saturday he introduced one of his best songs ever “00000 Million” with more thoughts about the way men treat women: ” There’s people in the world who are working for people who need help”, Vernon noted, in one of the few times he spoke to us, “And you’ve got to support those people now more than ever. I don’t understand if you love somebody why you’d want to hurt them. The only thing I can think is everyone is really really afraid.” The charity Justin was referring to is GEMS “Girls Are Not for Sale is a campaign of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), the nation’s largest nonprofit organization specifically designed to empower commercially sexually exploited girls and young women, ages 12-24.”
The song itself, “OOOOO Million” on Saturday and maybe even more on Monday, where it concluded the evening, is so beautiful it is hard to care whether “A word about Gnosis: it ain’t gonna buy the groceries” means more than it says, or less. All I know is that it sounded so lovely it seemed to sooth the pain by reflecting upon the mundanity of it all. At Hammerstein Ballroom, I held my breath and released it and held it and released for the less than 90 minute set. I went home, called my friend Marie Lynn, who had been there as well, and asked her what she thought and her sense of transcendence was also a feminist caring about the perceived harm she suffers through. When Marie Lynn was in college, I was so inundated with books on feminism and violence against women, I felt like I was back in college as well, and of all the things she took from Bon Iver (her favorite band) she took that she could love them without being insulted or exploited by them most. Justin Vernon runs 2 A Billion, Bon Iver’s gender-equity campaign
Later, the next day, I came to write about the show and I was mulling, thinking it through: was it more than an exercise in inclusive alienation plus light show. I was in the first balcony at Hammerstein, not bad, and it was distant but drawing me in closer. Was I being conned by a man who can’t stop staring at his navel, or was his navel gazing secondary to his sound. He seemed to be teetering on the edge of not gnosis but agnosis. I thought about seeing it again with a man whose opinion I trust explicitly Tomas Doncker, a man who works from the outside in, his last two albums were as objective a criteria of the human condition as you can hear. So I convinced Tomas to cancel his studio session last night and come to the Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The refurbished theatre is minutes away from where Doncker was raised, and he used to go to Bruce Lee festivals at the King. The place is spectacular, better looking than the Beacon, and we had third row. I was the oldest member of the audience, Tomas was the blackest. I wanted Tomas’ take and he came up with the smartest thing I’ve heard. Tomas claimed that the use of five saxophones in a position that should have been left to synthesizers freed the sound from the beeps of electronica by giving it another level of sound just behind the digital sound, it deepened and changed it. But as soon as Tomas got real tech on my ass, studying the pedals and effects surrounding the guitarist, he lost me. In the end, the sound was as transcendent for him as it was for me.
I never really liked Bon Iver at all till I saw em live, too whiny bitchy where they should shut up and sing the melody. But live, they just change your ears. Catching em twice in three days, for a total of two and three quarter hours, it added up to a complete concert plus with 14 songs repeated, two played once. But it was mesmerizing, and if it was self congratulatory, as congratulatory as the face for friends comment, it paid off as the layers in which Justin had hidden his melodies and hook on record, came through very clearly. All of a part even when erupting into post-punk no new york, or Gospel mode, or soul, and mostly dissipated folk dreams of love’s labour’s lost. Yet it added up to one of the essential live experiences, the autotuned to distraction vocals, with a new instrument called the Messina which harmonized Vernon’s voice to the instruments being played, seemed to push you away from the singer. He seemed to be working to rid himself with you in a spectacularly disillusioned fashion. So open ended that it could mean anything and so all of a piece, of a sound, with Justin’s calling card falsetto put on a backburner so the pain was otherworldly, that Tomas thought it might be a form of ambient. But it isn’t because it isn’t a background, it was front and center with the lights and the large band leading you in. The short sets kept you completely in their grip, kept you bedazzled, yet didn’t quite let you all the way in.
Yes ,faces are for friends but what is art for? Here art is for the sense of impending death maybe, certainly an impending breaking down, being crystallized into the greatest of beauties for no other reason than that it might be over soon.