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Rare and illuminating

Rare and full of light

The day of Ian Thorpe’s ‘big reveal’ interview, in fact only a few hours beforehand, I went off to do what has become one of the highlights of my week. Sometimes I do it for hours, even whole days: in short, I take myself off on Sunday drives. Yes, I’ve reached that point in my life. Thankfully I don’t take with me ELO or Mariah Carey CDs, but albums by Sonic Youth or Red House Painters or Burial or Jon Hopkins. Last Sunday, however, I didn’t have time for a whole day’s adventure, just a quick drive to the edge of town. Because the drive is only partly the point, as is the listening of music; I actually go on the hunt for old shit. Not posh antiques so much, but bits and pieces that might look good in a crumbling 120-year-old house owned by a writer who too is falling apart.

Last Sunday’s trip could only be short because I’d spent much of the day preparing financial records for my accountant. Getting my tax together is officially the nadir of my year. It is a time of great, fathomless despair. So, after six hours of that, it was time to jump in the car and head out to my local purveyor of old stuff. The business is in what clearly used to be a corner-shop. It’s filled with good things from years forgotten (by most), but none of it is expensive, and very little of it is in perfect condition – excellent. The shop is neat, but it’s not the sort of place where you feel you should put on a pair of white gloves before checking the price-tag. It’s owned by a friendly middle-aged man called Mart. A Sunday not long ago he offered me one of the Tim Tams on his plate. During the week he drives a school bus to towns and villages further out; it’s an appropriate occupation because I can easily imagine him to have been the sort of cheerful, chatty kid that no one had a reason to dislike.

As always, as soon as I stepped inside the shop, Mart said g’day – literally – and commented on the weather. ‘A big frost this morning, eh mate, minus-seven, they reckoned, with a feels-like temp of minus-ten. Winter’s really hit, eh mate!’ I could only agree. Before my eye was immediately taken by a light-fitting from the very early 1900s. I’d been on the hunt for exactly it for years. I checked it over: not only was it appropriate, it was highly affordable. I asked him to get it down from its display. I checked it over one last time, before I said that I’d buy the thing.

At the counter, which is a low desk with an old brass sign cheekily declaring ‘OFFICE CLERK’, Mart began packing the fitting into a box and started writing out a receipt. Wanting to hold up my end of the conversational bargain, I told Mart that for at least a couple of years I’d been driving all over the district looking for a light-fitting like the one he was selling me. I told him about the shop I go to in a small town an hour’s drive way that specialises in antique lights and lamps. He said, ‘Oh yes, the joint owned by Andrew and…’ and immediately went back to finishing the wrapping of my purchase before getting to work on the EFTPOS machine.

But I got the drift.

The lights-and-lamps shop an hour’s drive away is owned and operated by a gay man. Mart obviously knows him and his partner; being the gregarious, welcoming, non-judgemental person that he’s always displayed himself to be, he’s probably on very good, friendly terms with his regional antique-trade colleagues.

Being fond of black jeans and hoodies and Blundstone boots that have seen much better days, and often having paint or chook-crap stuck on me somewhere, and a three-day growth, I may not present as the typical (whatever that is, Christ) same-sex-attracted bloke. But neither would I present as someone with limited views on these things. Still, for Mart, it was easier to not make it clear that the light-and-lamp specialists were gay men. It was easier just not to say. Who knows: to him I might have extreme views. So, yes, best not to say, best not to say. That’s not to charge my mate Mart with homophobia. It was just easier.

Until people like me and Mart can be open and honest about the relationships of the people around us, even Australian heroes will have to go through the painful, anxious, almost debilitating act of shedding one skin to reveal another. Which is why, despite all the media-people build-up, the strategic commerce, the close-to-scripted event of it all, what Ian Thorpe did last Sunday night was necessary, important, valuable, and gigantically illuminating.

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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.

In six days time this man could be Australia’s next prime minister.  Seriously.

Could we stand turning on the TV each night and seeing this?

Could we handle him strutting the world stage?

What would I do to stop this happening?

Do a nuddy run around the block (and please note that it’s still winter in this neck of the woods).

Listen to every Red House Painters song in chronological order.

Read Atonement.

Eat only celery.

Anything.

Where I live I get to drive past the Canberra Airport at least a couple of times a week, and for the last month or so I’ve been chuckling at this sign (though also just a little distressed, not much, just a little).  I can’t help thinking the sign is suggesting that this is a place to roll out very sick hospital patients, not quite a cemetery but a dumping ground, a place to leave people in whom we’ve lost interest because they have become too hard to care for, or their case too hopeless.  Or it’s a place for people who’ve lost interest in their days to dispose of their bodies.  A handy chute for poor souls, then.  A place to discard, not to fly.  Though perhaps flying and discarding might be more closely related than I give it credit for.  Who doesn’t shed something, or die a bit, even just emotionally, internally, when they climb aboard a trusty jet and get away for a while?

PS Suggested music for this post: Red House Painters and associates.  Pick a song at random.  You’ll know what I mean.

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