Bon Iver Taps Spiritual Core
By John Brandon
December 15, 2008
I feel like I get the process -- and I get the intonations of Bon Iver. The brainchild of Justin Vernon, his masterwork -- For Emma, Forever Ago -- was recorded in Wisconsin during winter. You can almost hear the wooden floorboards in his voice, a piece of Will Oldham here, a chunk of Richard Buckner there. The heat register in the corner must have been turned up all the way on "Flume," a song that rollicks with Vernon's desperate guitar playing -- his flapping style and meandering incantation. The song "Wolves" dies several times, gets reborn, pushes through the disgust of a broken relationship, falters.
"What might have been lost" he repeats over and over, obviously never finding it. On "For Emma," with its trumpets sauntering along amid a weirdly emotionless strumming part, Vernon aches against a hidden grain -- holds up an invisible wall so the rest of us can see sorrow in full view. Maybe it was his band breaking up, maybe a relationship went south. The song "Emma" is particuarly odd because it's like he hired the backing band for Sufjan Stevens just to prove that he was really, really ticked off at the world. Bon Iver could make your most upbeat friend bleed dark purple.
Yearning, aching, reflection -- these are all characteristics of a spiritually-minded soul. We long for the eternal in a cesspool of the temporal. We're living in an abyss, sinking deeper into despair. The Bible talks about the "hands of God" a lot because they are the only thing that will lift us out. I'm not saying Bon Iver deals with spiritual subjects, but it certainly touches a spiritual nerve.
Right around 2000, before I was layed off from my job, climbing the steps of a corporate monolith, I had a discussion with a friend, a Jewish guy who was very smart and perceptive. I said, all great music is spiritual. He didn't agree at the time, I'm not sure if he does now. I insisted that even Bruce Springsteen has a spiritual element. We talked about bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco and The Jayhawks. I mentioned how, Neil Young has made a living by writing spiritual songs that are not spiritual. We trailed off into some other subject, but I still think great music touches something in us. I think Bon Iver has that quality -- rustic, open -- it's like a white light you can't help but see in the darkness.
Now I just need to figure something out: why can't Christian artists touch this same nerve? Why are Dustin Kensrue and Jon Foreman probably the only openly Christian songwriters who scrape the lower regions of the human condition where only God can rescue you? I'm not saying let's all get depressed, but let's at least admit that life is tough and be honest about struggles.