“Perth has such a feeling of isolation,” says American indie-rock Bon Iver frontman, Justin Vernon. The city of Perth, for which this song is named, sits perched on the west coast of Australia and is definitely isolated, with more than 2,500 miles of Outback between it and tourist hot spot Sydney.
“Perth” is the opening track on Bon Iver's eponymous second album, a concept album on which every song is strongly linked to a place, be it a geographical location or simply a state of being. Vernon describes “Perth” as a “Civil War-sounding heavy metal song.” The Civil War sound is apparent in the use of snare drum in a march-like rhythm, but the song couldn't be further from the traditions of heavy metal. “Perth” is an atmospheric song with typically strange, metaphorical lyrics sung in Vernon's signature haunting, counter-tenor voice over an unobtrusive guitar riff. The sparing use of horn in the opening track is reiterated in the final track, “Beth/Rest,” lending the album a cyclical feel. Bon Iver's critically acclaimed self-titled second album presents a musical departure from their debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. The soundscape of “Perth” is far more Pink Floydian prog rock, a trait common throughout the album.
This progressive soundscape reflects well the raw beauty of Western Australia. Miles of coastline with soft white dunes tumbling into the turquoise Indian Ocean are flanked with the scrub and stunted trees common to desert landscapes, as flocks of tropical, rainbow-feathered parakeets fill the too bright sky, competing with enormous black ravens for air space. The image of harsh sunlight pouring over an even harsher landscape is perhaps most succinctly captured by a line from the lyrics to “Perth,” “move dust through the light.” Perth is also widely known as the city of light due to the residents’ lighting up their homes for passing space shuttles in 1962 and again in 1998.
The city itself, settled on the banks of the Swan River, is a bustling cosmopolitan hub of cultural activity, home to over 1.7 million people and many internationals looking for greener grass Down Under. Buskers and a variety of performers grace every street corner adding to the permanent holiday feel of this lazy seaside city. But drive just 20 miles north and urban sprawl quickly succumbs to dusty bushland, scarred by annual bush fires and marked by small pockets of human habitation, home mostly to kangaroos and the ubiquitous ravens.
There is more to Bon Iver's song than mere sonorous tribute to the lonely capital of Western Australia. Vernon and music video director, Matt Amato, were shooting a video at Vernon's parents’ house when Amato received devastating news about the death of his best friend, Heath Ledger. The emotional turmoil spurned by Ledger's untimely death, combined with the fact that Ledger hailed from Australia - a native Perthian - inspired Vernon to write the song and call it “Perth.”
In a startling juxtaposition, Vernon describes Perth as a place with which he associates rejuvenation, after his own personal experiences in the city. That Perth rhymes with birth seems a fitting way to start the album. “Every song I ended up making after that just sort of drifted towards that theme, tying themselves to places and trying to explain what places are and what places aren't," says Vernon about the album’s conception, an album which travels from Australia, across the United States, with brief forays into Canada, and even into history with the song “Holocene.”
Despite the somewhat morbid inspiration behind the song, “Perth” really is about beginnings and not about death, lending the whole album a poignant but positive sentiment. ~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.
Bon Iver consists of 10 songs, each of them named after or describing a place. Vernon explained to UK newspaper The Guardian: "We have these intense relationships with our places, and that's loosely what the record is draped over," he said. Vernon then explained that not all of the places are geographical locations so much as sentiments or states of being. "I could go on and on and on about how we use the word 'place' in so many different ways," he said. "About how somebody might ask you 'Where you at?' And they're not asking where are you sitting, where are you living, they're asking: 'How are you doing?'"