Tribe House Blog

Bon Iver | Like Sex for your ears?

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Posted : November 18th, 2011 by

Who would have thought that a falsetto singing bearded 20-or-30 something year old who got his start by recording an album up in a cabin after a horrible breakup with his girlfriend would have such an epic impact on culture. Meet Bon Iver (pronounced Bon – Eye-ver). Here’s a review of a Bon Iver show in Seattle by our friend Sam McLoughlin originally posted here at the Burnside Writers Collective. He gets into some deep stuff – this ain’t no “ya, there were raging guitar solos and lots of hot girls”, this seemed to really probe something deeper in everyone who was at the show summed up in one of his phrases “Music is only truly important, truly meaningful, when it’s pointing us to something else.”

So, I saw Bon Iver at the Paramount in Seattle.

No big deal.

End of story. Cut, print, thank you come again!

Anyone can write a concert review.

It’s easy: plug “bon iver concert review” into Google, find the most recent article, and then change the date and city name. Or just ramble on for a few paragraphs about how a guy named Justin Vernon (who goes by “Bon Iver” on stage) had a concert last night, and there were a lot of people in his band, including a couple of drummers, TWO saxophone…ists… ians… players, a violinist, a keyboardist, and so on, and they made some great music together, and people shouted that they wanted to hear “(re:)Stacks” and “Skinny Love”, so he played them, wonderfully, and everything was magical and some people cried and some tried to sing along with the incomprehensible lyrics and others got drunk and yelled loudly at the conclusion of every song… and for a few moments, everything was right with the world. Throw a few adjectives in there like “mind-blowing” and “transcendent,” and you’re done. Voila!

But for now, EF. THAT. SHIZ.

I’m gonna try to figure out what was really going on inside those walls, and you’re coming with me. So let’s get real for a minute.

The real reason my fellow music snobs and I went to see Bon Iver is simple: we all need a good cry. We are lonely, depressed people who’ve been betrayed by parents, girlfriends, and bandmates, and this guy wrote a few songs in a cabin a few years ago that managed to effectively score our pain and soothe our heartaches with layered falsetto, singing lyrics soaked in empathy: “this is pouring rain, this is paralyzed.” We paid our $40-$100 dollars because we are desperately seeking healing, and we knew that here, if only for a few moments, in community, in beauty, in distraction, in worship of something bigger and better than ourselves, we might just find it.

I say worship, because that’s probably the best word for it. As David Foster Wallace said, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

“You guys should all sing along with this next song,” JV said before ripping into the epic climax of the evening, “Wolves”, with its escalating refrain of “what might’ve been lost”. “This isn’t church, where you have to sing to a god you don’t believe in. [Instead] you can praise music.”

And boy, last night, music almighty was praised like Allah himself.

And then, it was over. Tension, build, climax, release. Like sex for your ears. There, and then it’s gone. “What might’ve been lost” –– if we hadn’t seized the moment, given ourselves to it (presumably).

And then, back to our lonely skulls.

I really love Bon Iver. I thought his set was great –– the compositions were spectacular, his voice was heartbreaking, the sound was full and clear and amazing. But there was something more going on. It’s like everyone who showed up had all started this journey long ago by ourselves with headphones on listening to “Skinny Love” as the snow fell, wishing we could find love, a home, healing, whatever. And then, though we came by different roads, we made it to the same place last night, and rejoiced together that somehow, that pain was worth it, because we can appreciate life all the more having experienced it. Now, we can find joy, thanks to music, the last god of cynical, anxious 20-30 somethings, the last bastion of sincere emotion available to us. Honest and raw and without hype. Our last symbol of hope in a world of sleaze and excess.

But music is just that: a symbol. It isn’t the be all end all, even when it reaches magnificent proportions. (Btw, don’t kid us JV, you are magnificent. cf Holocene)

Music is only truly important, truly meaningful, when it’s pointing us to something else.

By itself, it’s just a beautiful moment: a sunset without sunrise, a kiss without romance.

Love is similar to music. It is not simply a feeling; it begins as that, sure, but it evolves into a purpose –– life’s purpose. Our life becomes about serving another person. This gives us meaning, and balance, and joy that takes root.

The feeling we get from music is similar: it can inspire us to climb mountains, and paint pictures, and live with purpose. It can teach us.

And last night, what was the music teaching us?

I believe the lesson is that sadness does not get the last word — healing does. It’s a sermon we all need to hear. That in the same way Mr. Vernon could draw from so many musical arenas and possibilities to compose something beautiful, something joyous, we too, in our own unique voices, singing together, can be a part of something beautiful and joyous: a happy ending.

Our pain is not useless: it can serve to weather our souls like the wood of an old guitar, to help us sing more brightly, broadly, and softly than when we were young.

There were moments of fleeting beauty in the theatre last night. It was obvious to all. Moments that served as a hint of warmth in winter’s breath, teasing us with a spiritual spring; moments that seemed to thaw our cold, sullen hearts… like a glimpse of the beyond… of heaven.

Moments that taught us that there is pain, but there is also healing. Tension, and release.

However, the lesson means nothing if we let it linger, if we forget, and move on to the next concert, the next emotional high. We must pursue; we must realize that great music is not a god; it is a symbol of God. It is pointing us to transcendence. And we must never stop searching… searching… until we find more than just “a crispy realization, the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.” (“re:Stacks”)

Otherwise, what might’ve been lost is the whole point of music altogether: the lesson. And we will inevitably retreat back to our anxieties, again looking to a new distraction to help us escape that “constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.[1]’”

“So the story goes.”

[1] Wallace, This Is Water

Front photo courtesy


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