Wrestling with Nostalgia

“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

While Socrates anticipated his death penalty in a prison cell, his students were bewildered as to how their teacher could remain so calm in the face of such a terrifying situation. The great philosopher’s reply was equally mystifying as it was straightforward: those who are wise prepare their whole lives for death, and so, they have nothing to fear when that time finally comes.

Though the notion that we should spend our days preoccupied with death may seem morbid at first, an honest reflection of our finite existence reveals that properly confronting it is necessary for living a fulfilling life: spend too much of your time hiding from death and you might miss out on appreciating how valuable your short time in this world really is, but spend too much of your time obsessing over it and you might spend your days paralyzed by fear, too jaded to leave the house.

And yet there’s a subtler interpretation of Socrates’ advice that provides a more interesting layer to it. Beyond the literal end of life, the death and rebirth of the self are constantly experienced through the numerous changes and transformations that occur within a lifetime. From our current state we can look back at story-like snippets of the past, happily observing different versions of ourselves, places we haven’t been in years, and friends whose presence in our lives faded with time. Accompanying the immediate euphoria of entering this kind of headspace, however, is the frustration of having to soon abandon it for the demands of the current moment, as the comfortable familiarity of the past is quickly replaced by the unsettling open-endedness of the present.

Considering the inevitability of change, perhaps there is something to be said for preparing ourselves for this kind of frustration, for leaving alone something that’s already gone, and ultimately, for being able to hold onto the past without letting it hold us back from living in the present. In other words, it may be worthwhile to address the question of how we are to wrestle with nostalgia.

The contemplation of this kind of struggle has steadily threaded itself through the catalogue of Bon Iver, led by frontman Justin Vernon. From their breakout album, For Emma, Forever Ago to 2016’s 22 a Million, the longing for the past channeled through their music has had an unparalleled affect of building intricately woven alternate universes. Spend enough time listening to For Emma — an album inspired by Vernon’s self-imposed exile into a family cabin — and soon enough you’ll be taken on a metaphysical journey away from your everyday life and into the confines of a lonely cabin of your own.

On their newest album I,I Bon Iver stays true to their roots while simultaneously flipping their older approach on its head, as Vernon confronts the problem of nostalgia here not as something to discourage us from moving forward, but instead as a hidden gem that can illuminate even the darkest of times.

Consistent with their other albums, an obstacle in meaningfully listening to I,I is the fact that it reads like a convoluted text: besides the strange titles of songs (“Yi,” “iMi”) and Vernon’s mumbling falsetto, the lyrics themselves often seem to border on the nonsensical. But a consequence of the complicated listening experience is being struck by the rare moments of lyrical clarity when they do arrive. After a few cryptic references to the nostalgic state of mind (“Living in a lonesome way/Had me looking other ways,” “I want it back/Won’t you tell me how to get it back?”), this moment arrives with force on the standout track “Hey, Ma.”

The song evokes the imagery of someone who is money-obsessed and self-absorbed, to which Vernon responds: “Full time you talk your money up/While it’s living in a coal mine/Tall time to call your Ma.” It’s moments like these in which Vernon convincingly advocates for the simple life; the kind of life that prioritizes childhood memories over the fleeting demands of the ego; the kind of life in which a thoughtful phone-call to your mom outweighs a lifetime of insatiable materialism.

As the album progresses from there, Vernon shifts from the microcosmic concerns of the individual to the big-picture demands of humanity as a whole. On “Jelmore,” for example, a seemingly fictional apocalyptic world is created until you realize that the dystopia is a not so far off from the planet we inhabit now if we continue to recklessly deplete its resources. The song itself brings to light the danger of becoming so used to our environmental instability that we never fully comprehend the consequences of it, leading Vernon to ask the uncomfortable-but-necessary question, “How long will you disregard the heat?”

But rather than an excuse to give up on humanity, I, I depicts the acknowledgment of our cosmic helplessness as what may be our greatest opportunity for change. Once the fragility of the planet becomes central to our consciousness we quickly realize that most of what upsets us on a regular basis is laughably insignificant in comparison; When we become aware of the fact that all of humanity faces the same predicament we notice that the millions of excuses that are made to distinguish ourselves from others does nothing other than pull us away from the human connection we actually need; And finally, once a healthy support system is put in place it becomes clear that we demand a lot less than we think to be happy.

It is this last sentiment in particular that serves as the concluding statement of the album, with the most riveting lyrical moment of I,I saved for the opening lines of its closer “RABi”: “Well it’s all just scared of dying/But isn’t this a beach?”

The lines can be both soul-crushing or uplifting depending on how they are taken. Vernon himself seems to embrace both perspectives, as if to say that our mortality is tragic but equally so is there inherent beauty in the human experience. That might seem crazy until you realize that one of those points couldn’t be possible if the other one wasn’t true.

Just someone who likes writing about the philosophy of music and the music of philosophy.

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