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I really can’t do it. I can’t remember the last time I sat upright in an armchair and listened to a new album from start to finish, the cover in my hands, checking song titles, reading lyrics, scanning the acknowledgements, then just closing my eyes to focus on what’s coming out of the speakers. But that’s exactly what I did this morning, for Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.
It was a nervous few minutes as I put on the album and got to listening. Compared to the awe-inspiring For Emma, forever ago (2008), would this album suck dogs balls? I’d recently had an experience of a band trying in vain to follow up a masterpiece – you can read about it here – and I’m just not strong enough to go through it all again. But, quite frankly, Bon Iver’s second album is extraordinary. It is majestic in its scope, in its wide-eyed amazement. Goose-bump material.
‘Perth’ starts the record in typical Bon Iver fashion – strummed and finger-picked guitars, Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto – but its conclusion is aggressive, as if to say, I’m back and this is my new album and you’re in for a fucking ripper of a ride. From here we meander through a musical landscape so beautifully crafted – so beautiful in and of itself – that it’s as if Vernon can barely believe his eyes and ears and heart and gut.
God is in the detail: in the crystal clear but so very warm production, in the sense of caring – aching – for every note, every beat, every word; you even get this impression in the cover art, the finest of brush-stokes in the idyllic lakeside scene depicted. As well as being majestic, Bon Iver is brave in its exploration and sense of play: song structures that go beyond what we know but stop short of where we thought we were heading. For Christ’s sake on this record saxophones duel with pedal-steel guitars.
Every so often there are hints of other bands: Red House Painters, Sigur Ros, even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But Bon Iver is all Vernon’s; no one makes music like this, music which strives to get a handle on what it feels like to be alive in this shit-house world we call home, that strives full-stop.
It’s true that Vernon’s lyrics are a cousin of gibberish. Take this for example, the first line from ‘Minnesota Wi’: ‘Armour let it through, borne the arboretic truth you kept posing’. Others have concluded that at the end of it all Vernon really doesn’t have anything to say, and this is understandable. But it’s possible that Vernon might know exactly what he’s trying to say, it’s just that he wants us to work it out, in our own way, in our own time. A clue could be in the acknowledgements; like many artists, he thanks his parents, but it’s how it does it that’s interesting: ‘And to more than anyone, my Mum and Dad. Who never encouraged me to try anything different. Who raised me to always be the best person I could be. For being my best friends and loving me so much. For as much life as there is to live, I will never be able to thank you enough.’
It’s the intensity, the sheer wonderment.
If it’s true that Vernon’s lyrics mightn’t exactly be driven by clarity, it’s also true that ‘Beth/Rest’ is a bizarre note on which to finish the album. It’s an unashamed soft-rock ballad, the sort of thing that REO Speedwagon inflicted on us thirty years ago. Vernon’s take could well be seen as courageous, but it leaves a distinctly cheesy taste in the mouth, which is odd considering that For Emma was a paean to the heartfelt and authentic. Is it a misstep? Perhaps. But on the scale of wank to genius, it might possibly nudge genius. Maybe in structuring the album Vernon wanted to take us on a journey from the mountain cabin in which he recorded that first record to the bright-light cities of middle America, which, of course, has soft-rock firmly planted in its fat burger belly.
Forgiveness is possible – if you think forgiveness is needed – when you consider the sheer gloriousness of the nine songs that proceed ‘Beth/Rest’. On the elegant ‘Holocene’, Justin Vernon disingenuously claims ‘And at once I knew I was not magnificent’. You are magnificent, I’m afraid to tell you. On Bon Iver, you’re dangerously magnificent, and I for one am glad that I live in a world where music as rich and transcendent as this is possible.
It feels only right that after all this time I tell you about my house, my home, an old place, 1890s they say, because that’s the age of my end of the street. It’s a cottage, a ‘cosy cottage’ according to the real-estate advertisement. A short run of picket fencing, a matching gate leading along a short brick-paved path, up three concrete steps painted red to a concrete veranda, the floor of which is also painted red. That’s the extent of the front garden. You could park a small car in it, but only just, and you’d squash the roses that are trying make the best of the lack of sun – the house faces east, over town to the hills and paddocks beyond.
At one end of the veranda is a perforated-metal table and two matching chairs, which sometimes I sit on and drink a coffee or tea or have a glass of wine. At the other end of the veranda is an old church pew, or perhaps it’s a school bench – the local old-wares shop that sold it to me openly admitted that they didn’t know much about it, they don’t want to know where their stuff comes from in general.
The old part of the house is just four rooms, two on either side of a hallway. The ceilings are high; even though I’m six-feet tall I can only just reach the ceiling when standing on the top of a step-ladder. To the immediate left is my study, or work room, or writing room, depending on what mood I’m in. The room is painted a deep rust red up to the picture rails, ‘ceiling white’ above.
To the immediate right is the original sitting-room, also painted deep rust red. There’s a coal-burning heater made by A. Hordern and Sons of Sydney, a mantelpiece (ancient-looking but not original), ceiling-high bookshelves on each side. When I first moved in I thought that this room would be my study, or work room, or writing room, what with the fire and mantelpiece and bookshelves and all, but I felt like a fraud, or that I was 100 years old and smoked a pipe while writing poems about daffodils and young girls. It’s just a sitting-room now; sometimes I call it The Library, or The Fireplace Room. Visitors like the coal-burning fireplace, especially friends from Canberra who’ve forgotten that such things ever existed.
Further along are the bedrooms, the main one on the left, the guest one on the right. The colour-scheme in the main bedroom is white with black trim and black curtains, or cream and black, Clotted Cream I think it is actually called. It’s a simple room, monkish: a queen-sized bed, simple timber bedside tables from St Vinnies, on one wall a colourful painting done by my father, on another a framed black-and-white photograph I took when I was eighteen, a morning-rise landscape, black branches against a brand new sky. I realise now that the photo is older than the person who took it. There’s an ensuite and walk-in robe, a first for me. I like how when I have guests I don’t have to use the ‘common’ bathroom. It makes me feel as though I’ve come of age.
The guest room is yellow, Cheesy Grin is the paint colour. The previous owners used it as a nursery for their young child, hence the colour of the walls. Perhaps they were saying to their child, You might live in an old house that’s crumbling around the edges, but we’re so happy to have you with us.
Yes, my house is crumbling around the edges.
In the back half, built during the Second World War when Goulburn must have felt so far away from everywhere that mattered, and perhaps there was a comfort in that, are the living areas. The lounge area contains a decade-old fading red couch which the Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper use more than me, the upright piano from my childhood, a stereo with record player, more bookshelves, and a skylight. The dining area contains an old pine table, also bought from St Vinnies. In this part of the house are two sets of French doors, one set looking north to the green Colourbond fence that’s smothered in a massive climbing rose, the other set looking west into the rear yard, a view of the old private school on the hill, Hogwarts we call it, of course.
A kitchen, the largest kitchen I’ve ever had – there’s room for two fridges (one for food, the other, a bar fridge, for bottles of wine), a walk-in pantry (sort of), windows that look out into the side lane. At least it used to look out into the side lane – after I lost interest in the drug deals going on next door I had frosted glass put in so I can pretend all is fine with the world.
Out the back is the ‘common’ bathroom, which includes a spa bath and is another first for me, and a timber-sash window, the weight is broken, so when the day is warm enough I prop it open with a piece of old dowel, no fly-screen, so the flies come in.
A laundry that’s really just a cupboard with a sliding door.
Much of the back of the house is tiled, a large square brown type, which I sometimes pretend are flagstones and this house is even older than it is. The rest of the house is floored with polished timber, turpentine the wood, so it’s a deep reddish brown and hard as steel. I broom the floors every day to get rid of the dog-hair tumbleweeds, and because I persist in spending much of my life wearing ugg-boots – this is Goulburn after all.
Outside, the house is concrete-rendered; it’s been painted a light, drab green, but the trim is rust red, so are the doors, the roofing is corrugated iron and doesn’t leak though it does creak in the heat of summer. A stubby little chimney, which I always love seeing when I come home from down the street, a bag of groceries stretching from each arm. It all hangs together well, my house. Many places don’t: extensions done in the 1970s still looking exactly like extensions done in the 1970s.
Out the back is the smallest of yards, though to be accurate it is four times the size of the front. A Koppers-log pergola thickly covered in potato vine – I seriously considered getting rid of the structure when I first moved in, until I realised that it’s there to cut down the incessant Southern Tablelands wind, and stop the houses behind seeing in, which is good, because in this place I’ve developed a dreadful habit of pissing outside, as if I live in a thousand-hectare farm out the back of buggery.
A small brick outdoor area, the old portable barbecue that’s yet to be used in this place. The rest of the yard is a cottage garden in the making – lavender, rosemary, salvias, irises, geraniums. Bulbs are emerging now. There’s not much room for trees, but I have a silver birch, a silkwood, two large wattles, a struggling Manchurian pear, and a very old fig which I originally thought was dead but my brother said I should give it a chance because it looked ‘prehistoric’. Come summer the fig showed itself to be a healthy tree, though I’m not big on fig fruit – my neighbour must be, because I’ve seen him lean over and pinch a few, and good on him for that.
A small veggie patch beneath the clothesline. My three new Wyandotte hens in their coop and run; they get the shits with the sparrows, who do little mission impossibles to steal food. An old iron garage that my father reckoned would have once been used as a shearing shed but clearly it wasn’t. I’ve thought about replacing the garage because it has no door, has a lean to it, and it leaks. But my friends say that it has character. Plus I have no money.
My place is pretty, she’s cute, but, yes, she’s crumbling. The floors had to be rebuilt from the ground up. When I arrived they were so sloping it felt like I was constantly drunk; really I’m only drunk some of the time, a little at 6pm each evening to celebrate another good writing day, and when He Who Too Loves A Cool Drink On A Warm Day is here, weekends mostly, because we live busy lives. So the floors needed rebuilding. I have photos of the process that make it look like an archaeological dig up at The Rocks.
There are cracks in the walls, which worried me sick at first, but I worked out how to do the repairs, making the walls look new, or at least newish. Some of the cracks seem permanently fixed, but one, above the door to the guest room, is persistent – I almost admire it now. Some of the walls suffer from rising damp, the paint sweats and bubbles. The damp is slowly killing the house. I’ve had a ‘chemical damp-proof course’ installed. I showed a photo of the procedure to a friend, who said that it reminded her of the Matrix films. The builder had to inject the walls, the multiple injectors connected to a machine that looked like it might have been stolen from an Intensive Care Unit. This means the dampness is fixed, or, at least, it’s in the process of being fixed.
The point of telling you all this is my house is alive. She’s old, she’s ageing. She’s a geriatric patient I care for. In return she gives me lessons about perfection, about the need to redefine my idea of perfection. She cracks, she creaks, she cries. She can be damp and cold. But she can also be warm, so warm, so loving.
It is good to be here, coming home, seeing her, taking me – us – into her, being reminded how imperfect I am despite my best intentions, because time is slowly taking us apart.