Smile Politely

Looking forward to the good winter

The downtown movie theater reminds me of the Art. The lobby is tiny, the bathroom is tinier, the architecture is WWII-era. The space shows its age, despite dim lights and recent paint. The popcorn lacks the mega-movie-theater smell of butter that fills up nostrils and triggers the salivary glands.

The downtown hole-in-the-wall, with its dated décor and stench of aging alcohol and decades of cigarette smoke, reminds of the Brass Rail. The downtown gastropub seems jointly branded by Carlos Nieto and Chris Knight, a fully realized merging of the Pig and the Monkey with Seven Saints’ menu.

The downtown park is where everything happens — concerts by bland blues bands, political rallies for parties struggling to regain footing, the festival of “Taste” that is ruled by corporate chains. Save for the waterfront it sits on, it’s not hard to imagine this public greenery as West Side Park.

I moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, twelve days ago. Already, I miss my adopted hometown, Champaign-Urbana, where I lived for more than a decade before heading north. Everywhere I look, I am reminded of what came before. I can’t stop making comparisons, finding ways to link the nuances I encounter in my new life to the staples of my old one.

I should probably halt this tendency before it forms a habit. I need to move on.

But then I listen to Bon Iver‘s new self-titled album, streaming on NPR before its release on June 21, and it unleashes an emotional snowball down one of Eau Claire’s steep, wooded hills, headed straight for me. Music was always my strongest ally during my time in C-U. It provided convenient ties to like-minded folks, countless distractions from the doldrums of small-city life and small-time careers and small-minded complaints about the town I live in. Many of the people I met through the C-U music scene are still close friends; many more are acquaintances I keep up with online. Those are the people I would talk shop with when a local band released an album, working over the flaws before forgiving them for the sake of neighborly duty.

Today, I don’t need such excuses for the new Bon Iver record. The band, whose frontman and songwriter, Justin Vernon, is an Eau Claire-area native, has no readily available C-U comparison. This is a guy who recently recorded with Kanye West, whose music is pimped in the New York Times, who has so much critical cache stored up he can go on late-night TV and perform a cover instead of playing a song from his forthcoming record. And that heartfelt cover can be of a Bonnie Raitt song.

Today, I don’t know anyone in my new hometown who can debate me on the merits of Bon Iver. And I’ve never met the guy, so I can’t talk about his new record through the same filter I will gladly adopt to discuss the next Common Loon or Tractor Kings record. I don’t know Justin Vernon, the person, from Justin Timberlake. But he sort of haunts this town. Remnants of his past with this community are everywhere: signed concert posters hanging in coffee shops he once played; prominently placed Bon Iver records in the local LP shop. There’s no street sign with his name on it, yet, but give him a few more years and I’m sure that could be arranged. He’s so totally this area’s musical star that people here don’t even bring him up when talking of the music scene. He’s a given, almost taken for granted as someone who has transcended his hometown; like Hum or Braid, Vernon has risen beyond regional heights to achieve nationwide critical and popular acclaim. Unlike either of those groups, however, Vernon may have the penchant for staying power. His songs are easy to drape in fresh textures, as he proves on his new record, which should help his “sound” maintain its fan base beyond any temporary fixation with a particular genre like, say, emo.

I ask the barista pouring me an iced coffee on this 92-degree day to tell me about the local music scene. Noting his arm sleeve tattoo, spiky hair, and skinny jeans, I figure he has an interest in it. “Are there any house shows in Eau Claire?” “Is there a rock scene beyond all the rootsy singer-songwriter folks who clutter the local acoustic stages?” “What local bands are people into?”

He rattles off names of bands I’ve never heard of and one, The Daredevil Christopher Wright, I have. He mentions the demise of the hardcore house-show scene and the upcoming reopening of a once-popular venue and the city’s strong interest in jam-bands and metal acts. He talks about the dire need for an indie rock venue. He speaks of this hippie bar that sometimes books good shows and that Irish bar, which can be a cool place to hang out on the weekend. The university, he says, has a good music program.

“But what about Bon Iver?” I ask. “Don’t people still adore him, or is he too cool for Eau Claire, post-Kanye West?”

“Of course he’s still loved,” the barista explains. “But Justin doesn’t play in town that often. He was going to convert a downtown building, right over there on the river, into a venue.”

“But his music career got in the way?” I cut in.

“Yes,” he continues. “And he’s diverted a lot of his attention to building and maintaining a recording studio.”

The picture he paints of Bon Iver, which roughly translates from French to “good winter,” is that of a recluse band fronted by someone who has bigger priorities than downing beers at the hipster hangout on a Friday night. Bon Iver isn’t even playing a nearby show on the first American leg of its upcoming tour to support the new record, opting instead for two nights in Milwaukee rather than playing in closer environs in Madison, Minneapolis, or Eau Claire. So maybe I won’t get to know Justin Vernon the same way I got to know the local bands I covered in C-U.  And maybe that’s for the best. Time to move on.

But then I return to the music on Bon Iver. It’s a mellow, introspective album, one ripe for projecting my own emotional state onto Vernon’s vague lyrics and slathered vocals. Several minutes of listening — of reflecting — later, and nostalgia is my undoing. Apparently, it’s Vernon’s, too. The stories he shares are tainted by bittersweet demons. And musically, too, he yearns for the past. I hear shades of early Peter Gabriel. I hear the bubbling guitar tones of Robert Fripp and Phil Manzanera, and the subtle synths of Brian Eno that have been so skillfully adopted by modern bands like TV on the Radio and Washed Out. I hear the rock star songwriters who branched out on their own in the murky, foreign, electronic ’80s. Stevie Winwood and Phil Collins are obvious points of reference. Bruce Hornsby, by Vernon’s own admission, is another. Seems Vernon sincerely enjoys the emotional, sometimes sappy pop music of that era. I do, too.

Yet Vernon reshapes such touchstones with his own styling, namely his distinctive, sometimes treated voice. Often sung in a falsetto, Vernon’s lyrics, most of which are largely indistinguishable without a lyric sheet, pack an emotional wallop. These are love songs. Not necessarily songs written for lovers, but about a love. If Vernon does one thing better than most, it is to wrap his words around the listener like a warm blanket. His voice never lacks passion, never sounds distant to the point of irony, never leaves the listener unsure of his intent. Whatever he is singing about, he cares for nothing else at that moment. He devours his subject.

In my brief time in the Northwoods, I’ve learned that sarcasm lays low. People mean what they say and say what they mean. They are nice, which instantly puts me on guard. In much the same way, Bon Iver’s music sounds too good to be true. Where’s the scam? What’s the catch? When is he going to reveal himself as just another act in a long line of hip musicians ready to pillage the ’80s for musical inspiration with a wink and a nod?

That’s not who Justin Vernon is, apparently. From a sentimental standpoint, he shares more ground with another ’80s icon, Bruce Springsteen. Musically and lyrically, the two are far apart. But ideologically they share much in common. Their music is forthright, restless, and full of plaintive longing. It’s even, at times, clichéd. And that makes me uncomfortable, makes my sarcasm meter dip below zero. I’m not sure what to do with that sort of emotion.

Yet that’s something I will have to get used to. The other sunny day I went tubing down the Chippewa River, which cuts the city of Eau Claire in half. Hundreds of other people, most of them high school- and college-age kids, had the same idea. There I was, farmer’s tan and tiny beer belly and ball cap tightened on top to protect the bald spot, my ass sinking into the center of an inner tube and soaking up the chilly water, floating down a lazy, but actual, river. And it hit me: Eau Claire is gorgeous. Trees as far as I could see. Hills, too, and urban cliffs and river rock and sand and olden bridges and a clear blue sky. I was just floating, being tugged along by the river’s slight current — disarmed by nature. The one thing that all central Illinoisans rightfully bemoan the lack of had overwhelmed me to the point that I felt, well, better than okay.

Maybe this move north will awaken such things in me on a daily basis. Maybe each day I will miss my former hometown and its people a little less.

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