A few months ago, I made a promise: I would listen to Bon Iver’s self-titled album as it was “meant to be heard,” stoned and surrounded by good friends. I take drunken deals unusually seriously, so when the album came out, I held out on listening until the afternoon where all the proper factors aligned. Five brave souls, high as kites, crowded into the coziest place we could find, cuddled up on pillows, ready to embrace what front man Justin Vernon referred to as a “super-dark” sophomore effort.
We were prepared. The lighting was low and intimate, there was a no-talking rule enforced, I even had a pencil and paper. But, halfway through, I ditched my intentions to record in favor of letting the forty-minute synesthetic soundscape wash over me.
I regretted that when I came down.
“Bon Iver,” we found, is an album that merits another kind of review, one written in an ‘elevated’ sense of awareness. Since we’d received direct instructions on how it should be experienced, I decided to give it another go. My second try found a pencil firmly in my hand, ready to record what I saw and experienced. For me, this was the truest way to review the album, the kind of music that I couldn’t break apart or quantify; it had to be felt.
That being said, I encourage those who read this review to do so while listening to the music itself. Without it, well, the rest just boils down to the ramblings of a casual stoner.
The music creeps out at you like a crowd slowly emerging from a dark wood, their faces lit by fireflies, just past dusk. They walk as a bulky mass, regiments carrying lanterns into the night; a slow procession up a hill, towards a darkened cliff. As the last of the group approaches the mass of light gathered on the precipice, you can see the waves beating against cliffs and a slow pan out to the sea, the lanterns still blinking in the distance.
I find myself underwater, the waves ebb and flow across my temples. Sinking slowly under the foam, I see a small fish jetting through the shallow waters of a lake, sunlight dappled across the surface. It is dark purple, its tiny tail fluttering back and forth. On and on it swims in the sun, the light changing from the overhanging clouds.
Suddenly, a cloud blots out the sun as a larger fish gives chase, taking measured jumps towards the purple fish that coincide in perfect beats to the little one’s nervous, puttering fins.
The purple fish breaks through to an enclosed shallow, back into the sunlight, and the light bouncing off its scales shimmers away as bubbles flying into the sky.
My eyes adjust to a snowy plain at sunrise, where a red elk walks slowly. Its gait long in the dim light, though it becomes a trot, then a run, as the sun and song progress across the sky.
“And at once, I knew, I was not magnificent”
It suddenly fades to night and the elk is running through a starry sky, lit silver by the constellations that fly past.
At, “And I could see for miles, miles, miles,” it loses all color and fades into darkness.
Snow and stars rush past the blackened elf, until it emerges, made completely into light, into the Milky Way as a new outer constellation
Panning from the sky, I look down on the original elk, which stands alone under the night sky. Another elk approaches it as the sun rises, and they begin to run together across the sun-lit snow. The second elk runs faster, until it eventually outruns the first just as the sun sets.
The elk is alone.
This song sounds like lying in the sun, but the view from behind closed eyes. Different shades of red and orange pulse in front of me. 1 minute in, my lids finally, suddenly open, but all I see is different patterns of light as my eyes adjust; my pupils retract.
Then I realize I’m flying on a giant bird, in the middle of a flock of white wings, like a Miyazaki movie. All around me are feathers, beating in perfect time.
As my bird breaks away, I fall down through the air for what feels like hours, until I fall too far, out of sight, away.
A team of young girls in bathing suits diving off a long pier, a line of yellow caps arching towards the water in slow succession. The cymbals are waves, creeping towards the dock, one after another, measured and insistent in their march.
I dive in last and find myself overcome by the swell of water, until a cool stream carried me out into the middle of the lake, where I lay on my back and float. The ripples poke my temples and I open my eyes to observe the gray clouds. ‘They look just like a down comforter,’ I think, before I close my eyes again.
I am a bat, pulses of sound rushing toward me in the complete, echoey darkness. The pulse beats to me in slow-motion, their echoes distorting the original pulses to infinity until I can actually feel the sound, a constant ebb and flow in my chest.
Synesthesia of echoes and sound multiply until they appear as neon colors, fluid like the inside of a glow stick, humming and fading quickly between colors of the rainbow. As the colors ripple off each other and continue to multiply, I am overcome by the lights that offers glimpses of the cavern until, slowly, the colors fade away.
Raindrops. Raindrops falling into a puddle that expands into a lake, which freezes as snow flakes fall onto the surface. Suddenly it melts – instantly – until it floods, over the roofs of the tiny cubic houses, creating a giant ocean and a watery underground civilization; a mundane Atlantis. And everything happens the same down here, where people go to the grocery store and pay their taxes and jog and fall in love.
I walk into one of the darkened houses, observing as a tiny kitten attempts to climb a staircase. Its miniature paws slide along the wood as it makes slow headway, up and up towards a blackened landing until all I see is its tiny gray tail waving at me from above.
I am standing alone on an icy expanse, looking outward. I can feel it slowly cracking beneath my feet before dropping suddenly into an ice cave, where the pillars begin to fall above my head.
Running from the fray, the deathly crystalline arrows fall towards my head, at a constantly increasing rate, until the tunnel collapses. But, on touching my skin, the ice starts to melt, faster and faster, burning my body until I become light too, merging into the white abyss. I cool off, now a hard star, falling slowly away from the other heavenly bodies, into space, farther and farther, where they forget about me.
We can’t escape the fact that the intro sounds like the beginning of an 80’s soap opera “I feel like I’m running in the opening montage for Bay Watch” my friend Andy says, motioning his arms back and forth in slow-motion, wincing towards a drowning victim.
One thing I do notice is that this song warms me from the previous isolation I felt during the others, despite listening to the record in the company of others. Instead of some natural scene before me, I see a myriad of faces, both familiar and strange, but all comforting. Though, on my notepad, I wrote:
“Fade to black like 12 times, in and out on us pouring drinks, drinking cans of beer, flashing in and out.. A much lamer scene from American Psycho.”
I never guaranteed that all my thoughts were poignant.