Clearly Justin Vernon reads this blog. Could he have picked a better day to release the first song from Bon Iver’s upcoming album? Yesterday I wrote about how Later… with Jools Holland opened my eyes to Vernon’s talent for transforming pain into something beautiful. To me, that performance symbolized triumph over loneliness, as if he was shouting, on behalf of broken hearts everywhere, “I’M STILL HERE!” It’s a powerful sight. So what happens next? What happens when your heartache turns into fame? What happens when you’re not just “still here” … but everywhere, instead? For just the price of an email address, you can download “Calgary” and find out. It’s a characteristically thoughtful and touching song, and it highlights the the dichotomy between his falsetto and full voices. His falsetto is so delicate, conveying notes and lyrics as if they’re imagined, more than sung. His full voice appears late in the song, waking the listener from the dreamy tone of the first two and a half minutes. But which is the dream? The falsetto that graced most of his first album, giving him a successful career and a public identity, or the earnest voice that interrupts it? The last line of the song declares, “the demons come, they can subside.” So which is which? Download the song and see for yourself.
By now, the origin story of Bon Iver’s wildly successful’ debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, has become indie rock legend. In the winter of 2006, the band’s founder, Justin Vernon, retreated to a remote cabin in Wisconsin to recover from illness and heartbreak, and ended up writing a number of bittersweet songs that captured the attention of critics, blogs, listeners and, of course, Kanye West. I enjoyed the album when I first heard it, but it was his performance on Later… with Jools Holland that made me realize what makes Bon Iver so special. Later… with Jools Holland (or just Later… for short) is an awesome show on BBC that features four or five bands each week, the artists arranged in a big circle, with audience members sitting in between the bands. For the two years immediately after college, I had access to Later… on demand and would filter through back episodes, checking out the diverse collection of performances. Bon Iver’s stopped me in my tracks. It’s a solo performance of “Skinny Love,” just Justin and a steel body guitar, and in four stirring minutes, he conjures the profound loneliness of that Wisconsin winter and transforms it into something greater, more universal, beautiful and, in an inspiring way, confident. I get the chills every time I see it. I hope you’ll check it out and see what I mean, and keep an eye out for his self-titled follow up album, which will be released on June 21.