Justin Vernon–the face of Bon Iver–was silent for five years. Well, not quite. He’s got Volcano Choir, he’s been featured on some stuff. He worked with Kanye in 2010 (say what you will, but I think Kanye’s a genius (so does he)) and didn’t fall entirely off the face of the earth, but as far as new music of his own–under the Bon Iver name–was concerned, Justin Vernon, probably to the delight of his rivals, has upheld a five year cease-fire.
Honestly, his first two albums, For Emma, Forever Ago (2008) and the self-titled Bon Iver (2011)–and we’d be misguided to omit the Blood Bank EP–were of the sort of caliber that I didn’t even notice five years go by. Those are the type of albums that remain ageless, two nonpareils that very few indie artists other than Mr. Vernon have the talent to produce.
But now, the indie-king is back. Justin Vernon sits atop his lyrical steed riding through the black night, his crown glinting in pale moonlight as he makes his return in the wee hours of morning. He swings his mace like the mighty Sauron, ready to obliterate anybody who ever questioned his greatness with a whirr and clash of medieval weapon on meek, pathetic skull.
I got a bit carried away.
Of the new singles available to me–through Spotify, YouTube, etc.–“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” stands out above the rest. My reasoning: the percussion. The opening synth/drum (can we even call these drums anymore?) is reminiscent of the Latin-feel opening to John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” delivered to us–I believe–by the legendary chops of Elvin Jones. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Though it’s only the first twelve seconds of Coltrane’s timeless number, this was the first thing that came to my mind. “Equinox” is one of my personal favorites, so the marked similarity (at least to me) was a nostalgic force that drove this particular Bon Iver track to the top of my list, as if some varsity football player swung at the high-striker and launched “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” to the highest bell.
I could probably spend a thousand words on the first eight bars of this song, and maybe I will. That opening “Equinox”-esque rhythm is the grumbly and electronic yin to Elvin Jones’ tasteful yang. Cranking this track with my studio-quality headphones (Vic-Firth, designed with function trumping form–they’re horribly uncomfortable), the wobbly looseness could fool an unwise man into thinking he’d blown his speakers out. I like this. Unplugging my headphones and hooking up to my bluetooth speakers, I feel my desk shake–in turn the whole room (probably to the dismay of my neighbor, but yesterday he complained that I walk too loudly, ipso facto he can go fuck himself while I mount a war of sonic attrition as long as our leases overlap).
This underlying wobble, almost Datsik-like (before I even thought of a word to follow this assertion I recognize that I’m being hyperbolic, but you get it), becomes even more pronounced when Vernon strips out the “Equinox” and leaves just his distorted voice and a borderline-flatulently-low sound that doesn’t even seem to exist within the metered time of the song.
I feel like I’m losing myself a bit here–still so caught up in the wobbly computer-generated Elvin Jones that grabbed me by the balls by the end of measure one, so let me try to reorient myself and move on to a new point.
“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is very clearly drawing from Vernon’s old work to create new. As far as his lyrical forwardness and the oomph behind his vocals, “Calgary” comes to mind. “Calgary,” too, had this un-Vernon percussive nature to it (particularly at 2:27, if you want to get into it). Though to leave unacknowledged the clear influence of tracks like “Woods” and “Michicant”and even “The Wolves (Act I and II), particularly in some of the less grumbly parts, would be an injustice. We are seeing Vernon wrapped up in a tempest of influence, mainly his past timbres and aesthetics–which each of his albums (and again the Blood Bank EP) distinctly had.
Vernon here, with this single, is taking risks. In conversation with a fellow music-enthusiast (and *cough* future Aardvark contributor *cough*), we agreed that Vernon seems to be following the same experimental formula as he did with Bon Iver. To go to the beginning, to take a comprehensive view of his career–For Emma, Forever Ago was pure indie. Purely acoustic, heartbroken dude goes to cabin in the woods and records songs with nothing but himself and some bare-bones equipment. The resulting songs–in particular “Skinny Love,” “Flume” and “Re: Stacks”–became ingrained in the indie subconscious. I would go so far as to argue that For Emma, Forever Ago is the Moby Dick of 21st century independent music. As far as this era is concerned, Vernon is the bar against which all other artists are measured.
Then came Bon Iver. Like his upcoming record, Vernon released singles from Bon Iver first. This is not uncommon practice. However, his selections for singles had among them “Calgary,” which–while I don’t necessarily agree–my friend classified as one of the weaker songs on the album. Looking at “Calgary” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” there are noticeable similarities. Both veer far from the For Emma, Forever Ago sound. Both are more percussive than we’re used to. There are portions of both which seem almost angry–at least I get that vibe from “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and maybe 20 seconds or so of “Calgary.” Vernon is seeing how far he can push away from what he was at his inception as a pillar of indie brilliance before he begins to lose fans. Lucky for him, his fans are so devoted, myself included, that he could probably put out some really shitty songs and I’d still listen to them all the fucking time. If we judged Bon Iver solely based on the release of “Calgary,” we’d have been way off base to what the final album was actually like. So, despite temptation, we must refrain from predicting the full-blown aesthetic of this new album based on the singles we have at our disposal. Or at least we can try to.
What we are witnessing is the progressive evolution of Justin Vernon. The man who was once just a heartbroken homeboy in a cabin is now a worldwide superstar. With this status, he is free to take liberties as an artist. With his singles, he sends out feelers. After For Emma, I was appalled by “Woods.” Now, I love “Woods.” I love “Babys” (though the spelling annoys me). Each of his albums has grown more and more experimental. I imagine he will keep pushing, keep pushing, until he feels he’s pushed too far. Then, he will return to what made him who he is–and what I think will always be his best and most complete album–For Emma, Forever Ago. This is a win-win for fans like us, as I’m sure Vernon’s experiments will lead to some brilliant sounds, and when he’s had his fill of deviance from the Vernon of 2008, his homecoming will refresh and delight us all the more.