Through A Note Darkly: What's Going On, Loveless, Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Bon Iver: Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Personal Favorite: “Holocene”

Summarizing Lyrics: “I could see for miles, miles, miles” (“Holocene”)

I think Bon Iver has encapsulated the 2000s in a span of three albums. The century started with a foot on the floor, For Emma, Forever Ago, then tech rose more and more, Bon Iver, and now we’re troubled cyborgs, 22, A Million. Being the in-between album, it’s fitting that Bon Iver is an album full of pastoral demimondes. Everyone here is drinking, forgetting, remembering, looking, escaping, chasing, leaving footprints on the snowy floor, footprints Justin Vernon tries to interpret through his vignettes. The music is also in an in between place, at one moment near the floor with clean guitars and layered vocals, at the next flying high with synthesizers, horns, auto-tuned vocals–flying high and seeing “for miles, miles, miles.” This very much feels like Bon Iver’s Bringing It All Back Home, inches from taking hold of what the modern age offers in terms of musical arrangements, inches from “going electric,” but Vernon does not make the turn without reason. “Holocene” offers the best answer as to why these kinds of transitions happen, transitions we ourselves are experiencing as our lives become more reliant on technology–“and at once I knew I was not magnificent.” With that lyric in mind a theme is revealed. The record resides in places that aren’t places, ponders on youth and love both escaping, helps us realize that time, something “apart from [us],” renders everything magnificent-less, so why not join time in its abandonment of us? At times, Vernon’s falsetto crooning sounds like he’s arguing for us to abandon ourselves like time does, but the record does not end with abandonment. “Beth/Rest” ends with sticking to commitment (“Aren’t we married?”) despite the harm it can cause (“Our love is a star/sure some hazardry”), suggesting that there is a middle way. Don’t be afraid to abandon what is already passing, but try to hold onto the important parts.

2. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless

Personal Favorite: “When You Sleep”

Summarizing Lyric: “Wake up, don’t fear/I want to love you” (“Soon”)

Loveless puts you in a trance similar to ones stirred by staring at dead channels or rippling water for too long. Plenty of music can do this, but what makes Loveless stand out is what it asks you to meditate on through the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics, like faces on TV screens and shivering water, are hardly comprehensible, but they are there, working subliminally, getting their meaning into heads without anyone really noticing. I don’t think the album would work as well if every breathy, barely audible vocal was about a flock of yellow ducklings playing frisbee because those words would shift the mood of the music. The words Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher chose, words like “Fall apart my beating heart/Nothing left to do/Once in love/I'll be the death of you” (“Blown A Wish), “When I look at you I don’t what’s real,” (“When You Sleep”), and “Kiss your fear,” (“To Here Knows When”), added to the trance and still forces a meditation on love and all of its subtle gruesomeness. The aforementioned lyrics connect in that a person is falling for somebody, but that falling comes with consequences that include obsession which can lead to ownership (“I’ll be the death of you”), a loosened grasp on reality (“I don’t know what’s real”), and the other person being afraid of you (“Kiss your fear”). With all these negative side effects of love realized, who would want it? One might become like the character in “Come In Alone” and learn to “love to let go,” stop holding up crumbling bridges and live loveless, or one might fall in love with the negatives and sing “Yeah, doll of pain/I let you get to me” (“Soon”). Either way, both parties choose what they choose because of how loveless love can be.

1. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

Personal Favorite: “Right On”

Summarizing Lyric: “Things aren't what they used to be” ("Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)")

Towards the end of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, a man who was put in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, who went through literal shit to save the life of his daughter’s love, finally sees the gates of heaven open up to him, his jaw unable to control itself from the excitement of relief. Jean Valjean, in that moment of religious ecstasy, was me while listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 release.

I cried, not because of how sad the album was (although the album takes some depressing turns), but because of the mere achievement of it. That a group of humans could come together and take what was inside a genius’ head and produce something as cohesive, thought provoking, and tear inducing as What's Going On is worthy of the “one giant step for mankind” quote. The artistry begins with the title, What's Going On. There is no question mark, so Marvin Gaye assigns himself the role of truth teller, the guy who’s going to tell us what’s going on and make that truth digestible with musical motifs and otherworldly vocals. Then we start listening, and as the lyrics slide their way into our brains we realize there are just as many questions as there are truths in this truth telling album. “What’s Happening Brother” has a character asking “War is hell, when will it end?” “Save the Children” starts with the truth teller posing a question, “Who really cares, to save a world in despair?” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” has Gaye woefully wondering where all the blue skies went. All these questions, many still being asked today, may have you asking your own question–”So, what is going on?” The answer, as Gaye seems to imply, is we don’t know, but we know a lot of it is bad and we want it to stop. It was and still is an age of questioning, which is better than an age of ignorance, but it is not a state Gaye was satisfied with as evidenced by his proposed answers. “Wholy Holy” has Marvin Gaye pleading for us to come together, to learn from the book Jesus left and the preaching would usually be a turnoff for me, but it was done so empathetically. There was genuine care and concern for the world’s future in Gaye’s vibrating throat, a genuine care and concern that made his lyrics straightforward, easily understandable, leaving room for the music and the medium of the album to turn his straightforward care and concern into poetry.

One Sentence Lesson: Sometimes I feel like humanity is just a species of masochists hurting themselves with the hope Marvin Gaye tried to spread by never acting on it or falling in love despite being fully aware of the consequences it may have on you, all choices made in an attempt to reify our lives when it might be easier to realize that we're not magnificent and just go with the flow... I guess I'm a hippy now.