The opening notes to the first single from Bon Iver’s now-released return from hiatus is a whisper from a pitched-up voice, speaking over a droning alarm, maybe pitched down: “it might be over soon.”
In that moment, I can’t help but think of every pain I’ve ever felt, that hopeful gasp as physical hurt grips at the flesh, the bone, the marrow of the body; or something even more sinister still, the hurt of a heart. “Where you gonna look for confirmation,” an all too familiar voice asks like a departed loved one from across the veil. It might be over soon, answers each sumatriptan or ibuprofen greedily drank down with a cold cup of water and eyes pierced shut. The train leaves the subway stop underneath downtown Oakland, California. Justin Vernon’s falsetto narrates nonlinear time: “So as I’m standing in the station / it might be over soon.”
Bon Iver’s self-titled record was released at the beginning of summer 2011, almost a year and a half before I am sitting at the West Oakland BART stop, smoking a cigarette and toggling looks between views of San Francisco and the city behind me: complete opposites in so many ways, most visually in contrast to a shroud of fog cloaking one, and sunlight bathing the other. A text message goes off in my pocket. When I pull a last drag, flick my cigarette over a rail, I read are you okay while coughing smoke out of my lungs; take one last tug of air into my “d E A T h b R E a s T.” Time shifts yet again. I step one foot after the other onto the trail headed back towards my apartment, it speeds down underneath the water, “deafening.”
A little less than four years after the mournful and endless listens to “Beth/Rest,” I am sitting at a candle-lit desk in Detroit, Michigan, feverishly switching between sides of a 12” single entitled “22/10.” I was twenty-two years old when the band took a break; ten years ago Vernon stole away to record his indescribable grief in a way he, and with him the rest of the world, could come to begin understanding. If Bon Iver’s return from rest can invest itself in symbology, numerology, so can its listeners.
The drone, again, nearly splitting daggers into a headache lasting an infinity (“(OVER S∞∞N)"), finally recedes like every migraine eventually does, letting flow fully the blood and oxygen, over familiar strums of guitar, keystrokes of a piano, other strange but comforting stringed instruments; a saxophone dances, so loosely tethered to the rest of the song it could fly away at any moment. Like memory, it too is unmoored from time. “As I may stand up with vision,” the clouds and black spots lurking in front of my eyes vanish and with such clarity can I again finally see. The headache is gone, and I am left whirling my palms around my temple as I resume listening to the record I waited five long, challenging years to hear.
How does it feel to break through the void of literal-mind-numbing pain, excruciating patience to hear again? “To draw an ear to you”? Listen, “So I can speak into the silence.”
I started having frequent headaches during the summer of 2011. Instead of at home, I was living and working on my college campus as a kind of catch-all go-between for the University and the various third parties that would use campus facilities before students returned in the Fall. A few friends were local, to the area or summer housing, but that summer was particularly hot and frequently spent in nights alone in entire residence halls. Similar to haunted house tropes of the movies, these large, vacant buildings perspiration with the many, many lives lived out within their walls. However, the poltergeists were those of heartbreak, beer-soaked carpets, lost virginities, improvised weed apparati, homesickness, friendship, and intellectual struggle, as instead of the usual demonic entities.
In dorm, I found comfort and company largely in music. During that summer, I remember purchasing a new portable record player to replace the long line of unsuccessful antique turntable furniture restoration I had undertook the previous years and fully committed to vinyl being my primary medium for artists contemporary and otherwise. I built a literal cave underneath my lofted bed, mattress on the floor and curtained by old sheets. Throughout the temperamental weather of a Midwestern summer, I would hide from the sticky humidity, or the thunderstorms, behind a veil, spinning albums like the Fleet Foxes’ spectacular second full length, or Okkervil River’s recently released I Am Very Far, or a quirky favorite of mine that year: Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs.
Those records soundtracked a very distinct feeling: first, the guilt in loss of a rather toxic relationship, full with the lesson that the person making the decision to walk away from what was once, and always, inaccurately called love shoulders as much of the pain as the other; second, an odd comfort in emotional, physical, and geographical aloneness. Comfort really is the right word for it.
However, I was not without friends around me that summer, friends who equally contributed to the growing narrative of those beer soaked carpets in those dorm rooms otherwise empty. On nights the pollen, or the heat, or whatever, didn’t sent me to bed with a wet cloth and soft music early, I would spend with my good friend Neil, who was living in a basement dorm over the summer to work as a valet at a local golf course.
I remember that June being nearly as eventful for Neil as it was for me, but in a much, much more positive way. One of his favorite artists had released a new album after a rather long break. He played me a few songs and I remember them not quite hitting the same notes as what I was listening to: not quite strange enough, or not quite soft enough. The record, of course, was Bon Iver.
Summer’s empty promise shifted into the beginning of my last year of undergraduate college. I was applying to graduate school, writing and writing and writing, Quickly, fall turned into winter as patience for admissions wore thin. More quickly still, my headaches seemed to be dialing up the amplitude and frequency for which they would crack thunder between my ears.
One night, one of the first I had to shut my apartment window to the cold, Neil and I were sitting in my room listening to Kanye West - not a terribly unusual event, particularly after a late-November road trip to see the Watch The Throne tour in nearby Detroit. As a creative writing major, and self-identified poet, I was a huge fan of “Lost in the World,” and its companion Gil Scott-Heron piece, “Who Will Survive in America?” Neil stopped the record, pulled out his Zune, and said, “alright, you just have to listen to this.”
Breathlessly, while first flakes of snow (probably) fell on a cold Ohio night, I listened to “Woods” again, and again, and again. For the first time, I was hearing Bon Iver.
During Christmas break I listened to the Blood Bank EP as a cure to the gripping anxiety over an uncertain future barely balancing on the axis of pending school acceptances. Right before leaving for a trip to California to see an old friend, I bought For Emma, Forever Ago to have during the long flights (and likely weather related delays). That album connected so quickly during repeated listens floating over Vernon’s native Wisconsin by-way-of Chicago O’Hare bound for San Francisco.
During my visit we enacted a version of the Emma origin story, taking hikes deep into the High Sierra, into Yosemite, enjoying the lively isolation of those forested mountain ranges. At the end of my stay, we spent a day and a half in San Francisco, where two of the six schools I had applied to were. To torture myself, we visited one of those schools as if to tease my already heightened expectations even beyond the realm of possible. If I could just put myself in a place farther away than any member of my family had ever gone, it could become real.
On the flight back into the winter from the ocean’s warm December, I became particularly enamored by my mishearing of the opening words from For Emma: “I am my mother’s lonely one. Its enough.” Imagining trying to live in a world so far away from all the comforts of home filled in an entire narrative of just that one line. And by the end of the record, crossing the night’s sky: “I toured the light / so many foreign roads.”
As the story began writing itself the next three to forever years of my life, a migraine lulled me into a terse and restless sleep until dawn found me back again tethered to a snowy Ohio.
One year after Bon Iver’s release, I was boarding another plane to San Francisco. This time, to stay. My record collection was in a friend’s camper headed West a little behind me. Suitcase full of clothes and expectations in hand, I arrived, walked into the sun outside of the airport. With that daylight, so foreign on this side of the country, a new dawn feeling like how "22 (OVER S∞∞N)" sounds, I came out of the woods and into the light. Done was the anticipation and dreaming. Now was this new life.
The first night in dorm at graduate school, I sweat through the sheets fighting off the worst migraine I’d had. To distract myself, I wrote a poem in an email through blurred vision to a girl I was too afraid to fully commit to before leaving Ohio. This foolishness I would remedy during the first year Bon Iver spent away from us all, but in that night, I was asking through veiled metaphors to “just last the year.”
I splashed cold water on my face, locking myself out of my room. “Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer” underneath my tired, pale face, I made myself so many promises I knew I couldn’t keep. “I tell my love to wreck it all / cut out all the ropes and let me fall.”
During a conversation I am simultaneously talking to her and a clove cigarette. Sitting on a patio high above San Francisco behind the dorm, more patient than time, she lets me cut myself loose.
Being so far away presents a number of terrifying challenges. I isolate. I retreat into my work. I retreat into my job, a thankless crack-of-dawn morning shift at a nearby cafe. Luckily, I’m given carte blanche to play whatever music suits me. In September, my roommate buys Bon Iver for our shared record player, and gives me the download code. Out of politeness, I oblige, but soon am soundtracking my 5:00am walk to work, and the majority of my morning shift to that singular record.
I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, some twenty minutes from one of the titular transition tracks on the record. I believe it is a physical sense of homesickness that drew me to again, and again, listen to this song until my hands were too full to switch back. Eventually each song on the album had burrowed its way into my head. I couldn’t believe how long I had spent resisting the strange, eclectic, complex music that build Bon Iver’s self-titled masterpiece.
In October, I was able to visit Ohio and like the previous trip to and from California I’d made not a year earlier, Justin Vernon’s telling falsetto soundtracked that journey. I saw that girl. I loved that girl. I went back to California without that girl. “At once I knew I was not magnificent.”
That winter passed more quickly without snow on the ground to tack the passing of the days and months. I was finding more and more confident legs to walk on between the two cities of the Bay Area. More migraines slowed my sleep, haunted my work with pain as joy had those dorms I’d lived in a year earlier. On November 12, time stopped. “Someway, baby it’s a part of me, apart from me.” Neil reached out to me, asking are you okay but not phrasing it as a question. “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick of Time,” the B Side to one of the album’s singles became more a question of self-worth than an unrequited relationship. The bottom fell out, just as I’d begun to fully listen to this band. The mornings were cold in a way that made no sense so close to the Pacific Ocean.
In the spring of Bon Iver’s first full year of hiatus, I was hospitalized because of a migraine that had caused my neck to lock itself in place. Multiple stresses, the doctor told me, was causing muscle tension too severe I would lock up. New pills littered my bookshelf a few blocks from Haight-Ashbury. These were the new songs on nights I couldn’t sleep and days I couldn’t see. This might be over soon, I plead with each migraine or muscle-ache. Perhaps I am addressing some kind of emotional hurt; a lack, a vacancy.
That summer patience is met with reward. In revising Blood Bank, I celebrate the relationship I should have rewarded myself with a year earlier: “Summer comes to multiply, to multiply.” My joys begin to grow again. “Summer comes to multiply, to multiply / And I, I’m the carnival of peace,” I celebrate and enjoy what I do not deserve. The migraines persist, but so does her devotion to my comfort. That fall, she flies to California to help me sleep better. She is the cold compress, the sumatriptan, the ibuprofen, she is the relief that comes and remains at the end.
At some point, I stop living in a world without Bon Iver and just begin living in a world. A world with a significant other, headaches, old music, new music, and it all sounds so beautiful. I leave California. I leave Ohio again. Our paths cross like birds flying in random patterns that form some great design we cannot fathom from the ground. As the days count down towards a seemingly inevitable conclusion, of our distance we say: it might be over soon.
But in Detroit, now, on the eve of yet another round of graduate school applications, another uncertain move, the world changes yet again. The bottom, already made a stable foundation, rises back up. As candles dance around me Bon Iver’s 22, A Million spins on yet another loyal turntable.
How strange is it to live somewhere and then not live there? How strange it is to love someone so far away from your body, who still lives within your heart? “You called and I came, stand tall through it all,” Vernon’s voice echoes, still recognizable with his falsetto but different still. Five years is a long time to spend thinking of your next song and verse. Five years, nearly, is a long time to love someone. And yet not long enough, not long enough at all.
I wipe a headache from my brow, remember everything; the emotional highs and lows spent with each song Justin Vernon has ever written. What I remember especially still is that whatever is ending soon, is still written infinitely.
As the candles flicker closer to out, I believe that is the most comforting thing we can have, while we wait to come full circle together.
Image: "33 God" YouTube