The Bon Iver allegory is a strong one. The idea that Justin Vernon, who would later appear onstage with Kanye West for his extravagant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tour, holed up in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin for three months as he teased out ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ in 2007 is one that resonates in an intensely human way. We’ve all experienced life at that point – where we lose interest in everyone and everything else and prefer to be alone with our thoughts – but few of us have the creative drive to really exploit that emotional state, shut ourselves away and actually produce something which, at its introspective best, is haunting, profound and real. Surely, it takes the right kind of person to overcome the default ‘mooch’ setting which appears pre-programmed in many of this generation (listlessly surf the internet, looking for inspiration) but if you get the right kind of guy with the right kind of disaffection in the right kind of place at the right kind of time, the results can be a fascinating look at raw, untempered human emotion. Somewhere between Ithaca and Philadelphia today, I got a couple of those telltale chills running up my spine.
The drive is a long and solitary one but pockmarked by toll booths, service stations and old people driving cheap Asian cars that weren’t made for the treacherous I-476, I never quite get to the stage where my thoughts gallop away, the point where the lane dividers disappear and all there is imagination stretching out for miles in front. Instead, podcasts, the best things for interstate driving since seat-warmers, kept me company today. NPR’s ‘All Songs Considered’ was my companion for part of the trip and served up this gem of a track, from Colorado’s Night Beds. Having relaxed into the familiar chatter of podcast hosts at the BBC and NPR who are all too comfortable with the sound of their own voices, when the buzz of conversation died away and was replaced by the first of the superb Winston Yellen’s a cappella moments that punctuate the song, serving as perfect ellipses, brief comma pauses and hyphens between stanzas. Amid the fray of work that is genre-bending, cross-cultural-sampling, electronic-progressive, we often lose sight of the humble singer-songwriter – a class which must now count Yellen among the finest in its ranks.
I often have an issue with singer-songwriter-style tracks. All too often, I’m caught up in the pure expression of them and accordingly pay little heed to the technical quality or otherwise of the tune in question. With ‘Even If We Try’, I might have had that problem initially but by the time the keys/strings double enters the picture and especially later, as the song takes a happier turn with handclaps and the promise of bonfire bonhomie, the musical value of the piece – although playing second fiddle to Yellen’s vocals – is clearly evident. NPR had this pegged as ‘country’ and the album from which it comes, ‘Country Sleep’ (out Feb 5) plays into that reading. But while there are hints of the languor that often defines country, I see ‘Even If We Try’ as country only in the literal sense. Much of the album was written at night in Yellen’s own bedroom (thus the name) as the 23 year-old came to deal with dropping out of college and a longer break-up (best fodder) and in a way, the space and solemness of the album reflects its original participants – Yellen, alone, in the country. It’s not Bon Iver clone material but the Iverian experience has patently left its indelible mark.
Night Beds – Even If We Try