Three ways of listening to a single
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The English dubstep star James Blake and the American indie singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver, bumped into each other at a recent South by Southwest and decide to collaborate on a record. The two work in completely different genres. Blake and dubstep has its roots in urban electronic dance music. Bon Iver’s recordings show an affinity for rural folk traditions and harmony vocalizations that recall the open air of his remote Wisconsin home. But the results are in with a single called “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir” that sounds like someone welded the two sounds together with a blow torch. That’s a compliment. While the Frankenstein-style creation may not resemble the pure music of each other’s past, it lives and breathes.
What it is ain’t exactly clear. After one listens to the song, one feels compelled to play it again as there are many layers to be explored during its more than four and a half minutes. But no matter how many times you hear it, the mystery remains. Much of this is due to the lyrics—assuming the sound of words are really words. Snippets of phrases sometimes can be understood, but the mix of auto-tuning, weird harmonization, and strange phrasing make them impossible to decipher. This is exacerbated by the peculiar instrumentation and recording techniques. For example, there is the sound of a dog barking at odd intervals. Only apparently it’s not. Jody Rosen in Rolling Stone says it’s a Cuíca drum. Who am I to argue? The artists’ publicist just sent me an electronic download of the song. Maybe this is in the liner notes or that Rolling Stone writers are provided with more information.
But I do have ears. And after playing the song repeatedly for more than eight hours (that’s about 100 times) while driving, cooking, walking, and doing other menial activities, I am ready to present my analysis. I have come up with three main interpretations of the song, but as a critic I feel it is my duty to first tell you: if you are a fan of either artist, you need to listen to this song. It is terrific. If you don’t like or are unfamiliar with these musicians, this will not transform your tastes. The words are garbled. The pace moves glacially. Nothing really happens. That’s kind of the point. This song is not for everyone.
Interpretation 1: The phone rings. No one answers. One can see through the window. The wind blows through the trees. You can feel your heart beat, “Oh baby.” There are blackbirds—no, just the spirits of blackbirds—in the sky. So many birds, they chatter loudly, but their voices all blend together. When they leave the area, the silence becomes almost unbearable. But then slowly, other animals make their presence known. The phone has stopped ringing.
Interpretation 2: Living by the water, one always finds the bones of dead animals by the shore. It’s unclear whether they wash up there, or if when they take a drink, they are killed by other creatures. Maybe it’s both. Some of the bones still have skin or feathers, while the small jawbones of others are bleached white. The blackbirds that live in the nearby branches never sit still. They always seem to be trembling, even when they caw caw caw in the evening light.
Interpretation 3: The insect mother laid her eggs in the radio, the one with the rusted batteries. Plugging it in, the speaker rattles as the bugs have eaten the glue around the paper cone. Reception is bad, but there is an oldies station. It’s Paul McCartney’s birthday, so they are playing Beatles’ songs all day, into the dead of night.