Monday, January 24, 2011

Soundtrack to a Sermon

Last summer my friend Paul, a Unitarian Universalist in Rockford, Illinois, introduced me to the music of Bon Iver. He even ordered me a copy of Bon Iver’s only album and had it shipped to me. In the wintery week that we just had in Kansas City, the music of Bon Iver supplied the soundtrack as I wrote my sermon for Remembrance Sunday.

I don’t expect that most readers of my blog are familiar with Bon Iver. And, even if you are, the story of his music demands to be retold. In 2006, Justin Vernon was living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and trying to make a go of it with his band. In short succession his band broke up, his relationship with his girlfriend ended, and he contracted a nasty case of mononucleosis that attacked his liver. Dejected, he moved back home and went to hibernate and heal in a hunting cabin his family owned in rural Northwest Wisconsin. Over a three month span he took stock of his life and recorded a haunting and transcendent album. The story is told here. And here.

He recorded under the name Bon Iver, an intentional misspelling of the French term meaning “good winter.” (“Hiver,” he said, reminded him too much of “liver.”) He got the term from an old episode of the TV show Northern Exposure where the citizens of a small town in Alaska greet the first snowfall of the year by excitedly wishing one another a “bon hiver.”

The music departed from his previous work considerably. For one thing, he sang almost the entire album in falsetto. The musical accompaniment is Spartan. Most songs are accompanied by little more than a cheap acoustic guitar. There is hardly any bass to speak of. The percussion is light and unassuming. On many of the tracks he fills out the sound by layering his vocal tracks over each other over and over again; he sounds like a choir. During his live performances, Bon Iver passed out the lyrics to the audience to create this larger vocal effect.

In all, Justin Vernon recorded 9 songs for a total of only 37 minutes of music. He wasn’t sure he had an album and he began to release the tracks on the internet. It spread on blogs and by word of mouth. Some were calling it among the best albums of the year before it could even be purchased. He chose to release the album on the small, independent Jagjaguwar record label, based in Bloomington, Indiana, under the title For Emma, Forever Ago. And, it was a hit. It was almost universally adored by music critics. They named it not only among the very best releases of 2008, but it also made several lists of the best albums of the decade!

The music strikes on an emotional level. Between the falsetto, the layering, and the unusual lyrics it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what he is singing. But, emotionally, you know exactly what he is singing. Justin Vernon uses the term “excavation” to describe his work. He is excavating his past: his pain, his disappointments, his longings. But he is also preparing a foundation. The music is hopeful. He is calling out to life.

And, that is why it became my soundtrack for my sermon this past Sunday. His music, somehow, unmasks something nakedly and purely human. It delves into the winter of human experience and names it and courageously claims it.

Bon Iver went on to release a follow-up EP entitled Blood Bank. He most recently collaborated with hip-hop superstar Kanye West on West’s amazing and grandiose 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that is widely regarded as among the best albums of 2010. Bon Iver appears on six tracks on MBDTF. His song "The Woods" is extensively sampled on that album’s second climactic moment, the track Lost in the World.

Here are links to a few Bon Iver tracks:

The Wolves (Act I and II) – notice his use of auto-tune!
Flume – one of the most adored tracks on the album
Skinny Love – as played live on Letterman
re:Stacks – my favorite track on For Emma, Forever Ago
For Emma – the title track
The Woods – the original song sampled by Kanye West