Talkhouse Contributing Writer Mark Eitzel used to be certain that the aliens would listen in on his dreams where he wrote amazing pop songs. Then they would record them and release them illegally the next day. He used to listen bitterly to the radio for his stolen songs. He has many tragic flaws. You can follow him on Twitter here.
In 2008 at a festival in Groningen, Holland, my bandmates got me stoned out of my mind in an effort to arrest my post-show angst. (I’m certain they weren’t being malicious — ha.) I did become very pleasant, although I had to be led around. They brought me to see Bon Iver and I loved it so much, I wasn’t even jealous. Then they took me backstage, where I met the band and just had to shake Justin Vernon’s hand. (Apologies to him and to Lavender Diamond, who also endured my stoned admiration.)
Bon Iver truly owned the room that night. Very rarely do I see the real thing. My mind was transported — the music was so personal and universal — and I know it wasn’t just the crippling level of THC in my system.
I am going to gush embarrassingly about the Volcano Choir record as well. It is ambitious and beautiful and its genre is “music from the summertime of our lives.” You really feel the band is going for wide-screen Technicolor. Big, fuzzy guitars and broken pianos. Whoever plays the piano is a hero. I hope they have great success. It’s an arty record that feels personal. Everything rises and lifts. Not like cherubs but like Saturn V’s. And Saturn V’s in slow motion with the sound off. The single “Byegone” builds to a crescendo that will have people fist-pumping to the lyric “Set sail, set sail” — I mean, seriously, it’s that. Although their fans would never do something so gauche as fist-pumping. (But they might do it secretly.)
I don’t want to make Vernon the center of this, because I know he isn’t — but I have to address the lyrics. I wanna say I love how he protects the mystery of the song. It is the most essential part of the music. It is as if he is as afraid of polluting the song with his own critical facility as he is afraid of the dullard world. So the lyrics are fragments; the story is only suggested. He speaks to the personal/universal because you know, as a listener, that is the best he can do. You strain to hear it as he strains to sing it. He’s trying to make something beautiful. I gotta use the word “generous”: It’s generous. I mean, you listen to “Alaskans.” The story isn’t spelled out but I know exactly what he’s saying. It’s just fragments of interior dialogue and odd exploded pieces of thoughts hanging by threads. And it hits home. And what is that phone message at the end that says, “Make it as if I was dying in my sleep instead of dying in my life. Amen.” Ugh. I love this song. Justin Vernon writes lyrics like Cornelia Parker makes art (see: Exploded Shed.) It’s all shadows and after-effects. It’s all what light reflects and what it throws against the wall. It’s about the light. He’s making up his own language and either you wanna try and understand it, or you don’t. If I were a critic I would go on about how people listen in a fractured kind of way “in these times” and how this is the only kind of sense that’s true — but yuck, who needs that…
Drums and guitars are not enough. Smoke and mirrors are what we are and we demand forgiveness. Our failed hopes shine up our dull eyes with ghosts. You feel like the musicians here are wrestling with the notes like nerdy bulls in china shops. Revelation emerges from silence, hangs there for a couple of lines, and then the music settles back towards silence again. The musicians bash at sounds hoping to make something more — and something more comes through.
Looking for beauty. Seems like most songs start and finish with a one-note drone. I thought the sequencer on the glitchy guitar song “Almanac” was too, too much. It reminded me of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis — because it’s a move Genesis would have made — but, like most everything on this, it’s aggressive and pushy in contrast to the soft and tender. It’s elephants on a grassy plain, and, overall, I thought it was great. The group of men singing on “Acetate” sound like Giants fans singing drunkenly in a bar — I live in SF — but are redeemed by beautiful piano and the song itself. The contrast between the human and the beautiful is constant. The bicycle bell on “Keel” breaks my heart. Really, the end of “Tiderays” sounds like Genesis again — but it has to: Vernon’s voice has a Paul Buchanan/Peter Gabriel thing, although it’s also a million miles away and has a different intent.
Someone in the group went to music school but they’re smart enough to know something very important: knowledge alone won’t help you capture mysteries.