There was a very specific moment when Bon Iver’s music assumed a certain level of significance in my life. A few years ago, amid a foreboding panic that I was a month from turning 30 and had accomplished none of the things I expected of my life, I torched the first draft and tried a rewrite. I left my home in Brooklyn and moved to Alaska. The cause of this decision was rooted in two fears: The possible longevity of middle age and its excruciating repetitions unto death, and the possible brevity, that I wasn’t young anymore, and soon I may no longer exist in the present — like tomorrow soon. What had I ever felt compelled to attempt and execute that might fall under another’s eye when I was no more? So I torched it.
Within that decision, came a particularly lonely night. I’d struck out on the trail and was stuck there. Rain started falling and it filled the canyon I’d been camping in with muddy rivulets that made passage by foot across any terrain aside from the blacktop of the lone nearby highway almost impossible. The mountain behind me was shrouded in mist. It had been for nearly three weeks, and I couldn’t help believing that if that cloud would ever blow away so I could finally see the top, my whole life would be revealed to me in its entirety. And it would make sense. There would be a reason for everything and I would know what I was supposed to do. But the mountain remained shrouded.
I waited on the highway beneath it, soaking wet, thumb out, green pack at my feet. My iPod — which I had been religiously charging by a portable solar panel any chance I got — was in its ziplock bag stashed in my rainslicker, sticky wet against my frame, and playing songs at random. The sign behind me said Carlo Creek, Highway 3.
When that silver falsetto came ringing in with Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me you’re laying waste to Halloween, I realized I didn’t know where the f*ck I was. Four large shadows clopped down the dotted yellow line of the silent highway. It was a family of moose. They did not so much as sneeze in my direction, a sure sign that even my odor has lost its urbanity. And at once I knew I was not magnificent strayed above the highway aisle. It was a relieving revelation, a thing to acquiesce to and let go of all that self-expectation, but also confusing, because it does not give license to completely quit trying.
So I didn’t.
What has always struck me about Bon Iver’s music the deep infatuation with, and interrogation of, time. Not just in the movement of the music, but in the power of the poetry to inform our emotional present; the way that we soar unconsciously from the here and now into future presents and revel in past-presents informs our anguishes, dreams, and choices. Music does this to us. Like previous albums, though much more explicitly, 22 A Million and its live performance is an exploration of this double way we move through the present, looking ahead, looking behind.
Earlier this week I was standing by myself at the back of an old iron works building in Red Hook, Brooklyn, when the band came on. They were playing the fourth of five consecutive shows at Pioneer Works, a burgeoning transdisciplinary center for research and experimentation in contemporary culture, which is also the place where I currently work.
This was the first time I’d gotten to see Bon Iver perform live, and that it was by myself, there in that building, was so fitting — it really shouldn’t have been any other way. I smiled at that, then at the way a tone for the night was set before the band even came on: In sobering preface to the musical performance a letter, penned 155 years ago by Sullivan Ballou, is projected onto the wall and read by an unseen voice: Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
It hushed the crowd, and pinioned me to the present — a moment in a series of moments from my life — as the stilted, nearly alien vocals to “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” merged into the final lines of the letter “It might (O Sarah) be over (I wait for you) soon (there).” These moments, present and past-present, coalesced before me into something overwhelming, like an ironic sense of joy.
The band jumps into a surprisingly more brooding and brutal version of “10 D E A T H B R E A S T ⊠ ⊠” than what appears on the album. The drums are full and feverish ramping up the energy in the packed building, and it’s not until I stood on tip-toes and peered above the crowd that I saw there are, in fact, two full drum kits and two drummers as the cornerstones to the symmetrical arrangement of all players on the stage. This itself seemed an allusion to much of the art on the latest album, a kind of Zepplin-esque symbology for the digital age. The lights and projections begin to form a patchwork of footnotes to the music itself, made all the more provoking by the large arch windows and the trees dancing in the wind behind them in Pioneer Works’ garden.
Psalm 22 flashes against the wall during the near gospel rendition of “Heavenly Father,” think Dylan’s Saved era. I actually know the first verse of that Psalm, and it’s a little intense, harkening back to Scripture memorization as a child, even as Justin Vernon sings: “Why (Been fillin’ up) hast Thou (hulls with) forsaken me (Goddamn fears).” An ancient feeling, a psalmist facing anguish, and confusion at being alone with failed attempts, mortality, and with no other recourse but poetry, crafts lines for others to hear when s/he shall be no more. And yet, in them, as in that letter, is a kind of plea, a direction or request for us to meet them “there.” Where? Then? The future? Some otherworldly place? Or perhaps it’s now? And what does it mean to go with them into that place in order to feel and examine our now?
I’d followed that road until I went as far west as I knew connected roads could go. And I stood on the edge of that Alaskan water and blasted Creature Fear, “So many territories…” I knew it was time to go back, so I started walking south. Returning to New York, I rode the train back across the country from LA, thinking about what to do next.
Whatever the last six months were, they were well short of a rewrite — a prologue, perhaps. I wanted to keep trying — I wanted to pursue the idea of finding and actively participating within a creative community, where people are giving back to each other, trying to rewrite cultural narratives, and build alternative practices, a community where magnificent and unexpected things could happen. On the train, it hit me that I lived right next to such a place for a few years before I left, and never really took advantage of it. I made a mental note to do so upon my return.
Today, I work in that space. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved at Pioneer Works nearly since the day I returned — and here is Justin Vernon onstage reminding people that Pioneer Works isn’t just another concert venue. It’s a place where people’s lives are changed, including his own, from the very first time he came. Which is why he chose it as the location for a five-night marathon of shows in Brooklyn, the last of which is tonight. There’s a lot of bad shit happening in the world right now>, he says, and a lot of people not doing anything about it, but people here are trying, people here are doing something about it.
“This here’s a song about a waking dream. A country song. So f*ck you,” he declarded, then went into “29 #STRAFFORD APTS.” It begins with a cross-sticking drum intro that’s not on the album and bears eerie correspondence to the intro to Springsteen’s I’m On Fire. I zoned out for a bit, as if lulled into my own waking dream, watching the lights, enjoying the songs as they pass by familiarly, and thinking about what he said about Pioneer Works, this place in which I now daily participate.
It’s true, it’s not just another venue. Two days ago in this very spot an astronaut was speaking about seeing the Earth from outer space, how near a paradise it appears, but how quickly its visage changes as ecological systems break down. And four days before that was a festival for experimental animation. And the week before that a three day fair for Alternative Art Schools to gather, share, and strategize, many of the discussions recorded and made accessible to the world by Clocktower Radio — an institutional resident at Pioneer Works.
All this while three books are in the process of being published, two records are being mixed and mastered, and students of all ages come to learn about fashion, technology, video art, the brain, tin-types, and polyrhythm. Roundtable discussions ranging from ecology and poetry, artistic practice and pedagogy in the shadow of Apocalypse, and hip-hop in the time of Black Lives Matter, attempt to think through and respond creatively to our post-election future. The final weekly community lunch, which fueled discussions that inspired the creation of a community seed library. All of this, not to mention the brave work being made by the most recent group of resident artists.
I was snapped out of reverie when it fell silent. As the sampler and sax duet intro of “8 (CIRCLE)” oozed across the room for an extended duration of velvet warmth, people immediately started yammering to each other. I was struck by this, and then by how quickly they silenced when the voice irrupted into “Philosophize.” This was followed by “715 – CRΣΣKS” with its passionate auto-tune, and listening to it I noted the overlaps it has with Blood Bank, not only in the images of blood rationed, love unrationed, the moon, the sun, car interiors, rubbing both hands, and types of kisses, but also in phrases toying with time — recognitions of the double way we experience it: Ain’t it just like the present to keep showing up like this and Oh then, how we gonna cry? Cuz it once might not mean something.
The present doesn’t just show up, right? It’s always here, and yet it does show up, in a sense. It has no outside, and no inside, and yet it contains substance — our lives as we live them, and possible futures. Times that once might have meant nothing without certain choices. Without leaving for Alaska, this night itself might once not have meant something to me. But it does.
I watched as the band trailed into the gentle opening notes of “Creature Fear.” They cast a place of resonance from these notes, a kind of theatre, and formed it into a swarm of harmonic feedback, seething distortion, and blood-roiling drums. There in Pioneer Works, as the final resonations of the crashing symbols come to rest, I realized there will be no rewrite, no repetitions, and no encore to any of it; but there will always be more to come.
Zach White is a writer and editor living in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He is the author of the recently published comic book series The Erratics. He works for Pioneer Works as a writer and editor. He also runs and co-curates their bookstore.