There is a scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red, played by Morgan Freeman, and his fellow prisoners are treated to a piece of music, courtesy of fellow inmate Andy Dufresne. Red, who is the narrator in the film, confesses that he had no idea what the two Italian ladies were singing about that afternoon, and he didn’t want to know. “Some things are better left unsaid,” Red tells us. There are times when I feel the same way about Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
If you’ve listened to For Emma, Forever Ago or even the new Blood Bank EP, you might understand what I’m talking about. Vernon has a way of mumbling the truth in ways that seem confusing to the listener, but are ultimately beautiful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sung along to “Re: Stacks” or “Lump Sum” in my car, either making up my own words, or just humming along to lyrics I can’t quite make out. “Beach Baby” off Blood Bank has the same effect – everything about the tune is so simple and true, except the clarity of Vernon’s voice, which sounds as if he is singing in a dubbed code that he discovered in his father’s cabin while he recorded For Emma.
It’s probably obvious by now–when it comes to lyrics, I’m a freak. Nothing can get my mind rolling like a well-written song. But with Vernon’s words, I let a lot of the meaning slide–and that’s probably because of the words I can make out, like in The Wolves (Act I and II), when Vernon sings, “Someday my pain will rock you.” He could let Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós sing the rest of the song, and it wouldn’t matter. I’ve already been given what I need, and that’s what I love about Vernon– when he really wants you to know something, he’ll make sure to tell you loud and clear.
Vernon does this with complete silence as well. The importance of space in his music is just as gratifying as that one line that shocks you gets you hooked. Take the gorgeous “Creature Fear,” for example. Play this track late at night, or better yet, on good headphones, and you’ll note the weight of what isn’t creating sound. Clearly, Vernon knows when to take his time, and that’s something more musicians should take note of—that it’s ok to slow down when the fast lane is flooded with wannabes.
Of course, there are exceptions. The title track off Blood Bank is a tune that is as direct as anything Vernon has ever recorded, and it’s a keeper. It tells a story that seems less personal than “Skinny Love” or “Blindsided,” but the approach is still a success. It doesn’t surprise in the fact that there is something in the song that confuses you; you’re instead baffled that every meaning and note is understood and heard so easily. I wouldn’t call it a relief, only another accomplishment of unique certainty.
Like Vernon sings in “Re: Stacks,” that “your love will be safe with me,” you can be assured he’s telling you the truth. Yes, someday his pain will rock you, too.
He said it: