winter in Canberra and Bon Iver’s new album

I remember, from my graduate school days, some well-meaning souls once telling me I was lucky to live in Albuquerque (I was there as on-site contact for the STACEE project) during the winter, because I was avoiding the freezing temperatures. I then had to explain to them that the desert does indeed get cold at night, which is when I was at work, outside, touching cold pieces of metal with my bare hands. Oh the irony.

It’s much the same in Canberra: the climate is very similar to New Mexico, so the high and low temperatures can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit different. It can be 15 C (59 F) during the day, and then drop to 0 C (32 F) or below at night, and then you wake up cold, cold, cold and you don’t want to move. Times like these, you fire up the fireplace and bring out the Scotch and try to forget how cold life is.

In the process of trying to stay warm out here, I’ve been introduced to a new (for everyone) album by a new (for me) musical group, Bon Iver. The group’s name is derived from, and pronounced like, the French bon hiver (“good winter”), which the characters on Northern Exposure would wish each other. It has been described as “winter snuggle music” by those knowledgeable of such things. :)

And that appears to be exactly how it came about: the group’s front man, Justin Vernon, had a really rough year in which his girlfriend broke up with him, his previous band broke up with him, and then he caught mononucleosis. So he holed up for a few months in a cabin in the woods near Eau Claire, WI, where he grew up: “I left North Carolina and went up there because I didn’t know where else to go and I knew that I wanted to be alone and I knew that I wanted to be where it was cold.” And he wrote an album which the critics loved, and then he brought in some other musicians and wrote this one.

The most arresting track on the album is called “Holocene”, a live version of which you can hear here. Somehow it accomplishes a sort of tone-poem painting of exactly what the title suggests (or perhaps better “Pleistocene”): I have a vision of a still moment in time, in the dead of night after the snow has finished falling, where the singer looks on a set of memories of his past as he might a mammoth encased in ice — detached, but not without sensing a life tragically cut short. The lyrics recall tough times,

you fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street
you’re in Milwaukee, off your feet

then a moment of crystal clarity:

…and at once I knew I was not magnificent
strayed above the highway aisle
(jagged vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles

Bon Iver’s lyrics are free-form and impressionistic, not quite word salad but not intended to form a realistic narrative. I kind of like it that way, and apparently so do the fans, because they can bring more of their own hopes and fears to the music. So much the better.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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