What Songs “Mean” and Why It’s Anyone’s Guess

8 (circle) // Bon Iver

Justin Vernon’s enigmatic storytelling shines on “8 (circle).” a drifting, winding mystery of a song with a meaning that you might struggle to decode — unless, of course, you aren’t trying to.

MPM #23

“8 (circle)” is the best musical halfway point between 2011’s Bon Iver and the more futuristic, experimental 22, a Million (2017) that it was released on, making it a great introduction to “new” Bon Iver. It holds a healthy but manageable dose of the weirdness and creativity abound in 22, a Million, dancing on the outskirts of the fascinatingly strange without venturing into the prohibitively unfamiliar (and trust me, Bon Iver has plenty of that). With a new album looming on the horizon, there’s never been a better time to get acquainted with the unpredictable, forward-thinking Bon Iver and the enigmatic Justin Vernon behind the name — a man Kanye West has described as his “favorite living artist.”

“8 (circle)” is a swirl of sustaining chords, voices, and sounds. Each element overtakes the spotlight before the previous one recedes from it, smearing the divisions until they vanish altogether. The result is one holistic, unified sound; a morphing, mounting crescendo that’s both dramatic and subtle. Justin Vernon orchestrates the metamorphosis of “8 (circle)” with a deft subtlety akin to the way you outgrow clothing — imperceptibly gradual, until all of a sudden your shirt doesn’t fit anymore. 

Here’s a great example of this: At the beginning of the song, the drums are understated and simple, tapping out a steady back-and-forth with the kick and snare. By the end, they’re a stadium-shaking force, booming and cracking like fireworks. But there is no obvious transition between the two. In every verse or stanza, Vernon sneaks in an extra element or dials up the oomph, increasing the complexity and impact of the drums with such compositional sleight-of-hand you’re unlikely to consciously register it. 

22, a Million features lots of vocal manipulation, from distortion to synthesized harmony to a whole host of effects I can’t even describe. Yet the vocals in “8 (circle)” are barely manipulated or mangled at all. And much like the rest of 22, a Million’s vocal processing, Vernon’s signature brittle falsetto is also conspicuously missing from “8 (circle).” Instead, he sings in his heavily underappreciated baritone, with a steady, deep-chested presence.

I still get La-Croix-in-my-spinal-cord tingles every time Vernon belts, straight from the chest, “I’m standing in your street now / and I carry his guitar,” like he’s boldly announcing himself to someone he loves. The absence of effects   falsetto pays off wonderfully here, with Vernon setting down the masks and funhouse mirrors for a moment of frank honesty. It’s got a John-Cusack-boombox-scene-from-Say-Anything feel, and shamelessly so. For all the end-around, multi-layered storytelling and lyricism Vernon is known for, this lyric — and this song — is unexpectedly and beautifully straightforward. I’m standing in your street now. Here I am. 

But don’t expect the directness of the sound to offer any directness to the details: Vernon’s words are as wily and winding as ever. “8 (circle)” is evasive, opaque, and intricate, offering countless (often contradictory) hints of what it might mean without ever explicitly tipping its hand. Even simple details — Does this happen in real time or as memory? Who is sung to? What the hell is an “astuary king”? — dodge explanation. In other words, pretty standard Bon Iver stuff.

But “8 (circle)” bears emotional gravity despite its unspecificity. Vernon’s music is connotative, not descriptive. (Buckle up for a hell of an analogy.) Remember that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 where Yondu tells Peter he doesn’t fly his magic arrow with his head, but with his heart?  Bon Iver songs work like Yondu’s arrow: You’ve gotta feel — not think — your way through them.

Immediately following the “standing in your street” line, Vernon continues: “And I can’t recall it lightly at all / but I know I’m going in.” This adds a second temporal perspective, with the song both living the events in real time and remembering them later. Vernon knows how “it” ends — and it doesn’t end well. But he knows he’s going in anyway. There are at least two ways to see this: Either as screw-the-bruises-this-is-worth-it dedication, or as a failure to move on, all the hindsight in the world helpless to hold him back.

Whether you read it as resolve, surrender, or stubborn denial is up to you and how you emotionally — not intellectually — interpret the music. Under a microscope, like light through a prism, Vernon’s work splits into a multitude of interpretations, diverse in perspective but not accuracy. Bon Iver songs are complex and unyielding — not to obscure their meanings, but to broaden them. 

This brings us to the main stumbling block people hit with Bon Iver songs: What does all this nonsense mean? What is this song about? What the hell is an “astuary king?” 

The short and unsatisfactory answer is that I don’t know. “Astuary” is not even a real word, rather a mishmash of “estuary” (where a river meets the sea) and the root word “aster” (relating to stars). But to quote Thor, all words are made up. So “astuary king” isn’t a “real” word, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. It just makes its meaning up for grabs.

So what is “8 (circle)” about? I could say what I think it’s about, but ask a dog and a bird what shape the pyramids are, and you’ll be told both a triangle and a square. The difference is perspective. When Vernon sings “We’ve galvanized the squall (i.e. violent storm) of it all,” perhaps the squall is the question of “What does this mean?” and the galvanizing is the desire to be given answers. You can galvanize simple things, like a saucepan. You can’t galvanize a squall. In some cases, the reflexive need for answers dilutes the richness of the mystery. 

To ask for explanations of Bon Iver songs — or any songs — would be like asking why the sunset’s pretty. “Well, there’s some reds and yellows and purples and they look nice—” …starts to feel like a strange question, no? I can’t verbalize it, but I know how it feels. What does this song mean? What does that song mean? Hell, your guess is as good as mine — not because we’re both equally wrong, but because we’re both equally right.

I love Bon Iver music because it holds so much space for interpretation; with galaxies of emotions, stories, and meanings in every song, each one is its own veritable Pandora’s Box of experience.

So maybe I never answered my question. What does “8 (circle)” mean? Maybe I don’t know. Maybe I still have no idea what the hell an astuary king is (exposed!). But who cares? Don’t the best questions always warrant more questions? 

“What does “8 (circle)” mean?” you ask? “Aren’t you asking the wrong one of us?” I say, determined to answer a question with a question.

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