Ever since mp3 players became a thing, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the ideal playlist for travelling – for travels long and short; on trams along the spine of Melbourne city, or sitting in the backseat during a long car ride with the family to either of my parents’ hometowns. And while Sigur Ros is really good atmosphere (filler) music, and the Rat Pack have their toe-tapping, finger-snapping charm, Bon Iver’s latest eponymous offering is something else. It transports you to a state of acceptance, not telling you a story of where you’re headed to, as much as making you trust in wherever it is you are. If I may be permitted an outlandish statement, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver seems to be just the playlist I’ve been looking for.
Bon Iver creates an unlikely symphony of guitar, bass, keyboard, random everyday objects (I spotted a bicycle bell in one track) and its lead singer, Justin Vernon’s voice multiplied. His voice is used in harmony, in murmurs, in resonant echoes, and is as clear as harps. The lyrics are sparse and mostly unintelligible unless you really strain to hear them, but they add to the already lush arrangement of dissonant chants, leading into a tune (yet each existing more like an anthem) that sweeps you away.
But rather than make you wish yourself away in a fit of escapism, Bon Iver manages to make you feet at peace with wherever it is you find yourself to be. My second proper listen to the album was on my way to work. My sixth listen was on the way to a weekend getaway. Both times, I grew increasingly aware of my surroundings as the album progressed and the guitar, muted into the background in the earlier tracks, climbs out into the chorus with gusto. It celebrates not so much a limitation of space, but a freeing from it – something that’s hinted at in the song titles, of places real and imaginary, or both (one track is named Minnesota, WI; another is Michicant.) The album as a whole escapes the trappings of time and place, and instead merges both to create a remarkable expression of nomadism, either in being a literal traveller or being a traveller in the everyday.
My favourite track is easily the first, Perth, which doesn’t remind me so much of earthy Australia as it does of the breaking of dawn into light, the soul emerging – the lyrics, first murmured in a hypnotic harmony amidst light strumming, culminate into a chorus declaring defiantly, Still alive for you. Sounding almost elusive at first, each track leads into the next, with the unusual and grand arrangement gaining momentum, its progression subtle and steady. Many fans question the surprise that is the final track, Beth/Rest, comparing it to the rest of the album and declaring the song jarring and strange. But to me, it felt like the natural culmination of travel – a triumphant track of percussion, electric guitar and keyboard, like the celebration of reaching one’s destination and returning to the familiar. Like the end of a restless tram ride or a long journey home, the track says, I’ve arrived. And if it hasn’t before, Bon Iver certainly has now.
2. Minnesota, WI
6. Hinnom, TX
9. Lisbon, OH
10. Beth – Rest
Watch a track from the album here: