Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
Enough has been made out of the cool side of the pillow. Enough with it. It's just an unused side, nothing more and nothing less. A pillow with potential. It's just lying there, naked by the headboard. Plenty has been made about the empty warmth of the bed too. The side of the bed, previously occupied, just recently deserted for a different bed. It's never meant a better bed, necessarily, just a different one, one with different sheets and blankets, different pillows for sure and without question, a different person to share it with. Plenty has been made out of how that warm, oblong shape of space that we can run our hands over and get burnt by the touch is like an obscenity to behold, to have to behold. There's no way around it. It's not the same as the warm spot that gets left in the mornings, when the alarm clocks beckon our better half away to an appointment or a job. This is the permanent kind of heat loss. It's there and then it's gone like a vapor, the scent of those limp, resting limbs and necks still reeks like betrayal and love, more love, no - more betrayal.
Justin Vernon, or the formerly wounded man behind the wooded Wisconsin band Bon Iver, is - right now - one of the foremost authorities on bleeding hearts and then finding a way of making them better. And while there is a lot of material about the cool side of the pillow and the warm, emptiness of the mattress, there's not as much material combining both the somberness of despair and the somberness of wanton hope. It's hope all the same and, in time, it can be something fulfilling again. It's almost a variation of standard depression and happy depression - where the shit luck things that happened (the beloved departing) will all get washed out of the picture eventually. If you hang a dirty, stinky shirt or pair of pants in a closet for long enough, they don't stink anymore.
It's the same principle - in a way - that's incorporated into the touching and heartrending work that Vernon wrote and recorded for For Emma, Forever Ago, a record that is as stunning in its natural grace and shape as any that's come into this world in the last five years, maybe longer. It's a work that can make you cry as it's taking your breath away. We're sitting there thinking about a broken man, a guy who's been completely splintered into fragments of himself. We can picture him inconsolable, crumbled into a tidy pile of destruction. We just keep the lens on him, with the lights surrounding him held back and low, barely touching him as if they too are afraid to put their hands on his shoulders and ask him if he's okay, does he need anything, can they do anything. They stand back, letting him breathe the blackness of mind and of spirit that sometimes is as morbidly comforting as a dark coffee when they mouth needs it. Suddenly, after weeks and months of no movement whatsoever, there's activity - slow and methodical - in the legs and arms, a wiping of the eyes, an embarrassed lifting of the eyes to see if anyone spotted the falling apart. If someone did, that happens, if no one did, it's okay.
The rebuilding begins surprisingly quickly and there's new strength that the broken man can call upon. Vernon had been teased by a blouse and felt the power drained from him by the memories of the eyes and the legs that are no longer his to call baby. They are no longer his to smile to and be lost in. It takes work to come to that conclusion and For Emma is the best that anyone's ever done that. He and his live band of Mike Noyce and Sean Carey perform a ritual every time they open their mouths, spilling out that winter that it took to endure this, reenacting the wood smoke that was likely pluming from the chimney stack of the cottage that Vernon holed up in, frosting up the winters that we were trying to look out of and forcing us to just be there, in that time, again, with him, as sad and lovely as it was back then. We come to believe that it was lovely. He makes us and we're damn thankful.
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