It’s a peculiar feature of long road trips that somewhere between hours 2 and 9, you lose track of time. Philosophers love to prattle on about the non-linear experience of time in the abstract, how sometimes the clock seems to slow down, and sometimes it seems to skip an hour or two while you’re caught up in some time-independent activity. They’ll stand at the front of the classroom and joke: “That’s why sitting in class always feels like it drags on forever, but the deadline always comes up faster than you realize!”
I’m not sure they really know what they’re talking about. There’s a paradox at work that logicians and phenomenologists politely ignore. Time doesn’t just move faster or slower; there are periods when it seems to fold back in on itself, moving at two different rates at once. It’s easy to explain this away: “That’s because you always remember the trip as being shorter than it was, even though it seemed to drag on at the time.” But that’s not quite right either. Sitting in a car with album after album on the stereo isn’t an experience of time dragging on in the moment but compressing back on itself in retrospect. Time simultaneously moves mind-numbingly slowly and faster than normal at the same time. You’ll catch yourself watching the exit signs float by impossibly slowly, counting the miles down, begging yourself not to look at your GPS and realize that you still have… 347 miles left on this particular stretch of freeway. But in the same moment, you’ll hear the horn section of “For Emma” burst in and feel startled that the last 27 minutes passed so quickly. Wasn’t it just a few miles back that you heard “Skinny Love”?
Places and times like this, during the dead space between towns, are perfect for discovering, forgetting, and rediscovering an album all in the space of an afternoon. Your mind quickly learns to free-associate with the music, darting from one subject to the next before the chorus is through. Music isn’t moving in time, it’s marking the time out in beats and crescendos.
This is where I found myself in mid-November 2014 and again in November 2015. Driving up I87 in New York, stuck on the freeway for a few hundred miles listening to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. I wasn’t stuck in a cabin with mono, recording the demos for the decades most influential lo-fi folk record, but I felt at home with the album in that way. Between wondering if I should have put snow tires on the car before leaving Philly (and in 2015, thinking the opposite in the 70 degree weather I was leaving behind) and wondering how long it would be before I got out of the car, I like to think I had some of the same thoughts that Justin Vernon must have had that winter. Do I want to put on a sweater? Is the snow going to get much heavier now? How much longer is this going to last?
It was one of those moments that just seemed so picturesque. I’m sure I’ll return to this concept when I tell you about listening to the Metzingers, literally seeing Philly fade in the rear-view while “Casey” played on the radio. But there I was, sitting in my car, most of my stuff stacked up in the back-seat, my tele’s tuning knobs poking my elbow occasionally when I threw the car into drive after stopping for gas and coffee in NJ. I made it to the entrance ramp of the throughway, driving for a few miles on an old state route with little else on it but a dilapidated Dunkin Doughnuts and a Shell station, half the yellow neon burnt out. Turning onto the highway, I cracked a window, and 45 degree air rushed into the cabin, a welcome change for me in a wool sweater, and I saw the first few flakes of a gentle flurry that was going to follow me straight up through Vermont. The last album on my playlist (the word playlist here used to mean a collection of albums I threw together in iTunes so I wouldn’t have to fiddle with my iPod during the drive) and “Flume” started up just as I crested the hill and saw the grey sky turning white with snow. It was magical.
As you must have guessed by now, this story has been less about an album and more about an experience. I’m hoping that I can convince you that the gap between the two is less than one might imagine. That particular day, that particular drive and how my route coincided with that particular weather pattern inspired me to listen to the album three times over before I decided to listen to Bon Iver, Bon Iver twice over and go back to For Emma, Forever Ago twice more in the last leg of my trip. I got to know the albums by the end. Mostly I had a mock debate with myself: What kind of music did Justin Vernon write? Is it just sad? Is it trying to evoke a specific emotion? Is it aimed at a specific season, or feeling, or experience? Ultimately, and I know it’s a cop out, I think it’s doing quite a lot all at once. It’s not really Christmas music, but that’s probably the easiest way to describe it. It’s Christmas music for atheists. There’s none of the Catholic guilt, but also none of the sense of religious celebration. It’s a specific early-winter, late-fall, sleet-falling-on-the-windows-but-we’re-out-of-tea, can’t-make-it-home-for-Christmas-and-wouldn’t-go-if-I-could kind of melancholy. To this day, I refuse to revisit “Perth,” “Towers,” “Blindsided,” “Re: Stacks,” and of course “Holocene” without serious mental preparation and a very compelling reason. The fact that a full five songs (out of 19 total) on the two albums trigger that kind of emotional response should be telling about Bon Iver’s ability to evoke a specific emotional response from the listener. No one does it better. (Maybe, the Antlers’ Hospice and We Shall All be Healed by the Mountain Goats are certainly in the running).
You don’t need a lecture on For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s brilliant, it’s amazing, it’s potentially the best album of the 2000s. This has all been said before, and no praise heaped on the album has yet been so extravagant as to encourage critics to reign in their hyperbolic statements. So what can I say that could possibly add to the deluge of praise and analysis that this album has already received? Well, I’d like you to think about time, and how it just doesn’t work properly in the album.
“Lump Sum” starts off in an almost etherial state of suspension where there’s no clear sense of rhythm (in stark contrast to a few other songs, like “Flume” and “For Emma” that start off with a clearly established strummed rhythm) but a profound sense of melodic composition. The few songs that do start with a clear rhythm seem to eschew the melodic component, establishing the tone of the song with palm-muted strumming and no clear indication of where the melody of the song is going. Put this together with the out-of-time backing track and the whole album seems to move at a few different tempos all at once. Audiences are encouraged to move through the songs at whatever pace they want to. Flume moves at staggering about 133 beats-per-minute, but the backing track carries over from measure to measure without any clear start or stop. It prompts the listener (much like the interlude around 2:30) to pace through the song almost leisurely, despite the upbeat tempo. The album doesn’t swell and fade in turn throughout the 37 minutes it runs, it swells and fades simultaneously. It’s always struck me that the album feels like such a long album despite it’s extremely short run time. This isn’t peculiar to For Emma because I hope we got the same sense (I certainly did) from 22, A Million last year, and the same sense from Bon Iver, Bon Iver.
Bon Iver is a master at this kind of manipulation, and I think it helps to explain the emotional response that a lot of his songs elicit. Time moves in weird ways at critical moments in our life. When something traumatic happens, time seems to slow down, and yet we’re likely to say “It all happened so fast.” Individual moments are seared into our memory, but they’re not like movies, they’re closer to polaroids: a split second becomes immortalized with the filter of nostalgia and we can’t help but remember the happiest of times as bittersweet in reflection. It gives us the illusion that the whole of our lives are going to be forgotten at some point, but that the most poignant moments are somehow immortalized, if only for ourselves. It’s pure conjecture, but I’m betting that there’s something about the changing of the seasons and the holiday atmosphere that helps to encourage this kind of experience, and that it might explain why Bon Iver’s manipulation of time makes us feel that way. Time around the holidays skips around and folds back on itself, like a long road-trip. It doesn’t stretch out like an August afternoon, it doesn’t even come with the promise of forward movement and growth that spring mornings do. Holiday time surprises you with how long its been since last Christmas even while you’re busy wondering how Thanksgiving and Christmas seem to fold together, and the time between them disappears. You’ll sit down to Christmas dinner and have nothing to talk about with people you saw for Thanksgiving. But you’ll look at a polaroid from last year, and think that it’s been forever since you were that person, and that you’ll never quite feel again the way you did when that photo was taken.