A picture hangs in my hallway of the Hindu god, Ganesha. It is a puzzle that was given to me as a gift many years ago now from my ex-girlfriend during a time of great confusion. I worked it alone on a little wooden table in the bedroom of the ramshackle house I shared at the time with a series of interchanging roommates. It took several nights to finish it, unwinding from a job I hated. After I worked it, I put it between two sheets of cardboard, taped it carefully, and set it aside for the time when I had a place of my own. I carried it with me reverently through a period of tremendous personal upheaval, never removing the tape binding, never looking at it. It represented a promise of sorts, an ending, and a new beginning. Three years later I framed it with some difficulty on the bare wooden floor of my first apartment. It was the first picture I put on the wall.
Three more years have passed, and now I live with my current girlfriend, Sara. Ganesha still hangs in the hall, only one of the pieces inside the frame has come loose and is slowly falling down behind the glass, revealing a small irregular hole in the mounting board behind him. Eventually I suppose all the pieces will fall until there is nothing but a frame of white and a jumble at the bottom. And I am fine with that. I suppose then I will unfasten the frame, gather the pieces in a box and give them to some other needy soul.
Bon Iver is a nom de plume for the album's author, Justin Vernon. It's a conscious pun on the French for “good winter,” because he wrote and recorded it in a single stretch of isolation and convalescence at a hunting cabin in Wisconsin’s far north, during the dead of winter, recollecting a painful break-up. For Sara and I, it is one of “our” albums. You know what I mean when I say that. But I am wondering now how certain pieces of music become that for people. Become integral, somehow exemplary, symbolic of the whole relationship, the whole unspoken frisson between two connected individuals. It’s easy to piece out the details: I first heard this song the night before our first date…; we listened to the album on that crazy trip to…; it was our soundtrack during that time we spent doing…
The picture on the cover, after brief examination, appears to be the view through an ice-glazed window of a lone frozen tree in an otherwise desolate landscape. I imagine the looked out this window countless times during the course of his creation, his view always changing; the tree, seemingly, never. More and more of its naked trunk he saw, only because the melting frost shifted his perspective the longer he continued his transmuting reverie. The window view became a mark of his progress inside the cabin, a circumstantial chronicle of the landscape outside it.
Is it weird for a break-up album to capture the essence of new love? All I know is there was something potent, some deep feeling in this music that caught us where we were and spoke for our bond. At first we couldn’t even hear the words he was singing. Only gradually did they reveal themselves, upon multiple careful listens. Sad things, broken images, riddles and references that perpetually confound and baffle. Clues to a puzzle that will never be solved and isn’t meant to be: the complexity of deep love.
The title track comes near the end, a clearer clue, perhaps, at least to the facts: “For Emma, Forever Ago.” So many memories we bring fresh to one another, so many unsolved riddles, so many broken things. So much time spent resolving pasts nearly beyond recalling. At the beginning our strength lies in potential; at the end, in wisdom. Forgiveness is the grace of letting go. It is a good winter because spring is coming.