Why I’m suddenly listening to everything Justin Vernon has put out (I don’t know why)

He’s the guy on the far left, with the rest of Volcano Choir, behind a misty or smoky or artistic haze.

There was about a year and a half, late college years — I was an American lit major, forgive me — that my reading habits turned decidedly Rothian.

In other words, I found myself suddenly reading Philip Roth. And then reading more Philip Roth. And then after finishing Portnoy this and Zuckerman that, I decided to find another Philip Roth novel.

I have no idea why I kept reading Philip Roth.

And yet by the time I was done, I think I had polished off a dozen Philip Roth books. It’s hard to sink that much time into an author without coming away with a serious appreciation for the work. There’s a reason Roth is considered one of the greatest American novelists of the last 50 years. “American Pastoral” sticks out in my mind as a favorite.

But here’s the thing: “American Pastoral” and “Human Stain” (both from his late period) are the only novels of his that I could give you a sufficient plot summary to encourage you to give them a read yourself. Every other book of his was lost to me the second I hit the last page and started looking for the next. As much time as I devoted to Roth, he has left so little impression on me, which makes me wonder again:

Why did I keep reading all his novels?

All of this is a overly lengthy way of getting to my present fixation on Justin Vernon. With music, the timeframe is greatly condensed. Whereas it took me more than a year to milk my Rothian fixation to the fullest, I can breeze through every album Justin Vernon has put out in a matter of hours, at least technically, though in reality it has been a few weeks of listening and then putting it down and then coming back to it, letting the pretty soundscapes and inscrutable lyrics take hold of my brain bit by bit.

I’m left with much the same impression I had with Roth: I’m not quite sure why I’m still listing to this. I don’t like all of Vernon’s Bon Iver stuff, the stuff that put him on the indie music map. Particularly the second full album, which to me is an unfulfilling slog except in its brighter moments, like “Wash.” and “Towers” and, of course, “Holocene,” though even the majestic sweep of that song is beginning to wear off.

Yet I’m still cycling through “For Emma” and “Blood Bank” and the two Volcano Choir albums, and even The Shouting Matches (very different). None of it has truly grabbed me in the way life-changing music usually does — with a simultaneous tug at the heart and the mind that makes immediate sense for the listener in the context of the way the listener is living his or her life in that precise moment.

Music love is all about serendipity. You discover something great at the only time you ever would have thought it to be so great. If you had stumbled across it a couple years earlier or a couple years later you might still appreciate it but wouldn’t let it into yourself so willingly. Music has always meant more to me than any other art form, even the one I received my bachelor’s degree studying. If pressed, I could probably give you my life story as a series of musical phases: The “Odelay” phase. The “OK Computer” phase. The “Nebraska”/Bob Dylan phase. The “Mule Variations” phase. The “Summer Teeth” phase. The Walkmen phase (which lasted about a decade). The “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” phase, which occurred well after LCD Soundsystem had left the scene but well before they decided to return to the scene.

It may be too early to declare the past few weeks my Justin Vernon phase. More than anything, it just seemed like something I felt guilty not knowing, if for no other reason than that Vernon is so self-consciously Wisconsin that I can’t really call myself a Wisconsin-based music fan without at least knowing what he’s put out.

And I can’t help myself but keep listening.

I spent so many years loving the Brooklyn-based band The Walkmen partly because their songs (except for the one that everyone knows) didn’t come off as flashy, but rather of the slow burn variety that rewarded repeat listens, aiming at a musical and emotional target in the middle distance and consistently hitting it. Listening to and loving The Walkmen felt like getting older and being OK with that. I may have been the only one of their fans who felt that way, but that’s alright.

I may also be somewhat unique in enjoying Justin Vernon with a similar attitude, particularly his work with Volcano Choir. Most of his lyrics make very little sense to me, and that’s refreshing. Like a great American poem, it washes over you, leaving an impression that isn’t altogether concrete or even fully knowable. With music, the lyrics also become part of the literal sound, and on an album like “Unmap,” that is quite consciously the goal. Vernon’s voice is just another instrument ripe for experimentation.

And yet, like my Philip Roth fixation, it seems easy to imagine one day simply walking away from “For Emma, Forever Ago.” As pretty as the album is, it’s not something I need to structure my life around, though my impression is that some people have done just that, as evidenced by the fan frenzy that greeted Vernon’s first Eaux Claires festival last year and its Bon Iver reunion.

One exception: Volcano Choir’s “Repave.”

What a great, mysterious album cover, too. It evokes “Moby Dick” or something.

There is not a weak moment on that album, and every one of those songs now has at some point gotten stuck in my head, begging me to flip it on again. It’s an album that has started to take hold in the old way, so that when I’m old and gray I may have to tell my grandchildren about that “Repave” phase of my life and then go back and listen to it again.

Maybe then, I’ll dust off my copy of “American Pastoral,” too.

Endnote

The best thing about music these days is full listener control. I checked all these albums out on Amazon Music, and given my dislike of the “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” album and my love of “Repave,” the obvious answer is a playlist, ignoring the bad and elevating the good. I put together 20 of my favorites over five full-length albums and one EP. Here’s how it looks.

  1. Island, IS (Unmap)
  2. Holocene (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
  3. Skinny Love (For Emma, Forever Ago)
  4. Acetate (Repave)
  5. The Wolves (For Emma, Forever Ago)
  6. Byegone (Repave)
  7. Blood Bank (Blood Bank EP)
  8. Creature Fear (For Emma, Forever Ago)
  9. Seeplymouth (Unmap)
  10. Tiderays (Repave)
  11. Gallup, NM (Grownass Man)
  12. Still (Unmap)
  13. Lump Sum (For Emma, Forever Ago)
  14. Wash. (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
  15. I’ll Be True (Grownass Man)
  16. Towers (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
  17. Alaskans (Repave)
  18. New Theme (Grownass Man)
  19. For Emma (For Emma, Forever Ago)
  20. Almanac (Repave)
Like what you read? Give David Paulsen a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.