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Jesse Kornbluth Headshot

Bon Iver's New CD: Is It Fabulous -- Or Is It a Fabulous Fraud?

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I thought For Emma, Forever Ago was the CD of 2008. And I wasn't the only one. Critics on two continents flipped for the almost subliminal music, the heartfelt lyrics about lost love and deep regret, and the cool story of the songs' origins. There were some naysayers -- my friend D. offered to send me her husband when she found him happily listening to it -- but as a general rule, even those who fought Bon Iver at first become converts by the second or third hearing.

Tickets for the Bon Iver concert in New York sold out immediately, so I threw consumer caution to the winds and bought some from a scalper. That they were in the third row justified the expense; we'd experience intimate music at an intimate distance.

The concert didn't play out as expected. It wasn't the band's fault --- the harmonies were flawless, the songs nicely varied from whispers to shouts, and for a guy in a checked shirt and dark jeans, Justin Vernon has more charisma than you might expect. It wasn't the crowd's fault; every hip kid from Brooklyn was in attendance.

The problem, according to my wife, was the essence of Bon Iver.

I saw sensitivity; she saw pretension. I heard rough-hewn Beach Boys; she heard a vocal trick, endlessly repeated. I sensed emotional depth; she registered earnestness and manipulation.

We don't fight, we discuss. But not that night. A glacial chill surrounded my wife as we left the concert. A deep silence followed, though it is possible the word "fraud" escaped her lips.

Bon Iver became a private pleasure for me. Fear of divorce waned. Love, peace and happiness returned to our union.

And then I took delivery of a new four-song Bon Iver CD, Blood Bank.

Like a fool, I urged my wife to listen to the first song. It begins like this:

Well I met you at the blood bank
We were looking at the bags
Wondering if any of the colors
Matched any of the names we knew on the tags

You said see look it that's yours
Stacked on top with your brothers
See how they resemble one another?
Even in their plastic little covers

With a withering look, my wife left the room. Just as well, because the song moves on from the blood bank to the singer's relationship with a young woman. And if you're not a fan, it's just as annoying, I'm sure.

That secret that you know
That you don't know how to tell
It fucks with your honor
And it teases your head
But you know that it's good girl
Cause it's running you with red.

I was an English major, analyzing lines like this was once my business. Forgive me, because I'm about to do that here...

"That secret that you know/That you don't know how to tell" --- what is it? I'm betting it's how she feels, about the blood pumping hot in her heart for him. Then, again suddenly, the scene shifts:

Then the snow started falling
We were stuck out in your car
You were rubbing both my hands
Chewing on a candy bar
You said ain't this just like the present
To be showing up like this
There's a moon waning crescent
We started to kiss...

And I said I know it well....

Do you know that car? I've never been in a cold beater in Wisconsin, eating candy to get my sugar up after giving blood, but yeah, in my teens and twenties, I sat in that car. Many times. And you may have too, in those years when making a connection with him/her was the most important priority you had, more urgent than family or career or even self-preservation.

There's one more verse:

That secret that we know
That we don't know how to tell
I'm in love with your honor
I'm in love with your cheeks
What's that noise up the stairs, baby
Is that Christmas morning creaks?

Ah, the dark at the top of the stairs, metaphorical and real. She doesn't live alone? She has a boyfriend? This moment took them too far too fast, and now there are costs and consequences? It's a mystery.

And while you're processing that, the band plays. The drumming changes; what was once a crisp heartbeat becomes softer, rounder. This is way too corny, but.... it's the sloshing of blood through the heart. And it reduces me to putty.

There are three more songs, each about guitar strums and high harmonies and silences deep as ravines. I'll spare you the analysis; if you think "Blood Bank" is ridiculous, you won't warm much to the other songs.

Bon Iver --- fabulous or fraudulent? I really can't tell. All I know is here I am, saying, yeah, the first verse is either brave poetry or stupid doggerel, and I can't help myself: Right now I think it's beautiful, I adore it, and if you don't, I completely understand and can only say, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]