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Bon Iver: “22, a Million”

Can one exist in the past, present and future at the same time? Where all three states of being are codified into a single, unified existence? This is one of the grandstanding questions that Justin Vernon tackles in Bon Iver’s third album, 22, a Million. And it’s his auto-tuned pursuit of that answer which echoes a depiction of fourth dimensional living in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”:

“Tralfamadorians … can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Trafalmadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other.”

Not unlike a long exposure video; Vonnegut’s imagery provides us with a critter-inspired vision of someone existing in all three corners of time’s triumvirate: the past, present and future. Like so, Bon Iver’s 22, a Million provides listeners with his attempt at construing his past, surviving his present and finding his future in simultaneous fashion, and then plugging those experiences into a maze of coded lyrics, electronic intonations and frenetic instrumentation. And what emerges from that cataloging is a staggering body of work that embodies the best of what artistic experimentation has to offer.

In a year that’s already filled to the brim with new offerings from introspective crooners, bombastic rappers, and idiosyncratic rockers, Bon Iver’s 22, a Million gives listeners a rousing newness in sound and structure. Much of what it offers is uncharted territory, an audible experience that warrants no comparison other than to what preceded it. And as little blips of familiarity appear, they tether themselves to his previous works: For Emma, Forever Ago, Blood Bank and Bon Iver, Bon Iver. There, the past comes into collision with the present. 22, a Million feels unique despite its nostalgic trappings. Like deja vu.

It’s the warm synth aura of “8 (circle)” that whiffs of “Beth/Rest”; standouts in their own respective albums. The lone layered vocals of “715 – CRΣΣKS” hark back to “Woods”, a personal favorite of Kanye West. But instead of the repetition in “Woods”, “715 – CRΣΣKS” reaches for diverse aggression, stacking more pathos into each successive line. And “29 #Stafford APTS” comes closest to echoing the wintry soul of For Emma, Forever Ago. Its wholesomely folk tune, light acoustic plucking, vocal echoes and mellow tone strengthens the bloodlines that relate the two. In 22, a Million, these connections abound when you look closely for them. The past is exquisitely folded into the present. And those moments of realization make the listening experience all the better.

In a press release, Justin Vernon wrote that “ If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place.” And it’s that act of letting go that intersects his three timelines as one; a release of the past, an acting in the present, and a yearning for a future. It’s this retirement that’s reflected in the coded lyrics of 22, a Million. Run down the track list and you can extract the emotional arc of a journey from start to finish. From incited movement ( “So I’m standing at the station”) to second thoughts ( “When we leave this room its gone” ) to coming towards a crossroads ( “The path ahead/the path behind it”) to arrival at last (“I’m standing in your street now so”) and reflection at how far he’s come (“Must’ve been forces, that took me on them wild courses”).

But even in this lyrical haze, 22, a Million allows its audience to re-interpret and re-order what’s already been expressed. It opens itself up to personal revelations, allowing the gaps in explicit meaning to be filled in with the coloring of our own personal narratives. It encourages the listener to attach their own significance to the words we hear, and even to the fictional ones (“fuckified” “dedicoding”) which are sung with emboldened punctuation. And that’s when 22, a Million takes us on the same journey it’s been telegraphing throughout the entire album. As we begin to ascribe our memories to it, we feel our timelines coming to a head as well.

And that act of deeming personal significance is further reinforced by one of 22, a Million’s central tenets: the pastoral themes. From titling two songs as “666 ʇ,” and “33 ‘GOD’” to employing a verse from the Book of Psalms (“why are you so far from saving me?”), these hints of spiritual searching lend deeper meaning to the emotional weight of the album. Even the terminology that’s sung (“canonize”, “consecration” and “hark!”) further illuminate subtle feelings of sanctification. And these concepts lead lyrical inquiries into the existential (“I’m still standing in your need of prayer”) as it considers the state of the human soul. But it seems, rather than the Psalms, that 22, a Million is more evocative its far gloomier, beset cousin, the Book of Ecclesiastes.

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Futility, pain, vanity, death and meaninglessness. These are the matters that the Teacher writes about in  Ecclesiastes. And they parallel the sentiments that are expressed in 22, a Million, especially in the album’s final track “00000 Million”. Raw, gripping emotion abounds as the Teacher struggles over the futility of his existence (“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless.”). Lines from ‘00000 Million’ such as “I worry about the worn path”, “cause the days have no numbers”, and “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in” echo equivalent sentiments as well- feelings of uncertainty, emptiness and resignation respectively. But then the song’s final line reiterates the lyric (“if it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in”) but this time in the present tense (“Well it harms, it harms me, it harms, I’ll let it in”). No longer a statement of resigned surrender but now an declaration of pyrrhic acceptance. It’s Bon Iver’s recognition of his previous haunts, an absorption of the ever-present ache, and a resolution to chase after a better tomorrow, capping off a masterful vision of his past, present and future collapsing into one.

Bon Iver: 33 “GOD”

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest. 

Psalms 22: 1-2

33 “GOD” is Bon Iver’s third single off of their upcoming album, 22, A Million. The lyric video, posted below, opens with the underlined selection from the 1st verse in the 22nd chapter of Psalms. “Why are you so far from saving me,” cries David as he wrote this 31 verse song. And here, visions of anguish, despair, inquiry, self-reasoning and hope paint lush shades of David’s emotional and mental state throughout the chapter. He contends with his faith, while first expressing his withheld doubts. This is the vision of an ordinary yet extraordinary man; a king and a leader who openly bears his soul for others to bear witness.

But alas Justin Vernon is no king. He’s no warrior either. And there, the comparisons fail. But he is a musician, who combines his vocals with an uncanny sense of boundary pushing instrumentation. Just as the Greek definition of “Psalms” details, he combined words with music and does so with an insatiable skill. And those same depictions of self-discovery, anger, disappointment and hope in Psalms 22 also reside in 33 “GOD” as well. But here, they are codified through Bon Iver’s taste for vocal distortion, stunted timing  and onomatopoeic sound effects. All scene settings for his upcoming album, 22, a Million. As a result, what we have is a poetic, poignant and yet frustratingly cryptic single on faith, self and existence. 33 “GOD” grabs you tighter and closer with each repeated listen. It demands to be understood when it cannot. And the slightest and subtlest blips suddenly burst to life when the previous listen kept them buried under Justin Vernon’s exquisite falsetto.

What I’m Listening To: Week 11 (Bon Iver Edition)

He’s back. Justin Vernon has officially made his return as Bon Iver at the 2nd annual Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin this weekend. And as promised, he has released new music to coincide with his band’s reappearance after a long five year hiatus. Listed below are two of his newest singles (with thoroughly insane titles to boot) that provide us with a good taste of what is to come. Bon Iver’s newest album, entitled 22, A Million, is now slated to drop on Friday, September 30th.

1. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]

Where do we begin? After two excellent stints with both Volcano Choir and The Shouting Matches, Justin Vernon finally finds himself back home. Bon Iver has officially re-risen. Here, “22” is the first of two singles ripped straight off of his newly announced album, 22, A Million. Here, the static ambience, vocal repetition and celestial chorus create a lush, new sound for fans of the band, both old and new. And that saxophone is just touchy enough to bring us back to the glory days of the self-titled album. But most importantly, Justin Vernon’s voice in “22” is crisp and clear amongst the fading and blipped noises that echo in and out throughout the song. It remains consistent until “22’s” end, allowing for a stream of string instruments to slowly let the new single fade into its quiet outro. While there’s just enough in “22” to settle for familiarity within our ears, there’s also just enough newness to get us excited for the upcoming 22, A Million as well.

Watch the lyrical music video for “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” by Bon Iver below: 

2. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠ (Extended Version)

There is an unexpected aggression found in “10”. A dark, stormy, chaotic turmoil that courses through the distorted drum beats that start off this single. Make no mistake, “10” is a direct descendent resulting from Justin Vernon’s time working on Kanye West’s Yeezus. The same tribal, trap noises found on Kanye West’s album is found here as well, accompanied by a swell of voices all codified by an orchestral sounding auto-tune. “10” is unlike anything that Bon Iver has put out in his past. This is a signaling of new direction. And it’s an exciting indicator of the high experimentation and risk-taking that Bon Iver may have undertaken while making 22, A Million. Might it be a stretch to say that this is his first banger?  Maybe so. Nevertheless, it’s another promising sign of things to come in the band’s near future.

Watch the lyrical music video for “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠ (Extended Version)” by Bon Iver below: 

What I’m Listening To: Week 10

1. Brand New Moves – Hey Violet

Bumps and booms, grinding about. Hey Violet’s newest single “Brand New Moves” alluringly grooves about in its heavy bass-thumps and dazzling electronic riffs. Rena Lovelis’ vocals coasts then soars with mesmerizing precision, baiting listeners in with one hell of an addictive pop rock single. And it came as no surprise to me when I found out that Rena also handles bassist duties. That’s because the song has an uncanny ability to meld her voice with that bouncing rhythm. That combination lets both audibles work in tandem with each other rather than apart. And it’s that interaction that kept me coming back for a second, third and fourth listen (in a row). “Brand New Moves” is a song meant to function as a soundtrack to your active life. Hey Violet wants you to live up to their single’s namesake. You can walk to this song. You can run with this song. And you can dance along with this song.

Watch the lyrical music video for “Brand New Moves” by Hey Violet below: 

2. Run Run Blood – Phantogram

There’s an electrifying tinge to Phantogram’s newest track “Run Run Blood”. It squeals with a high reverb in the opening riff and segues into a cult-like chant of “Hey wolf, there’s lions in here/There’s lions in here, there’s lions in here”. It’s a continuation of the dark and unsettling mood found in their first single, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”. Here, the chaotic, urban atmosphere crafted in “Run Run Blood” settles heavily within the listener’s ears. In some cases, it doesn’t allow itself to be enjoyed. Rather put, it’s a tense experience, aiming to elicit some form of an emotional reaction to its disjointed and dystopian noise.

3. Dang! – Mac Miller (feat. Anderson Paak)

West Coast meet (almost) East Coast. The soulful crooning of L.A. native Anderson Paak mixes with the psychedelic spit of Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller in the latter’s first single , “Dang!”. It’s a potent song, catchy in its hooks as the rap flows through the open spaces left out on purpose by the song. It’s a continuation of form for Mac Miller after the 2015 release of his excellent album, GO:OD AM. And most of all, it’s nice to hear the song itself surrender itself a bit to the trappings of that West Coast vibe. Which is most likely encouraged by the presence of Paak’s vocal contributions. So, it’s in that resignation that we find a slick smoothness in the way “Dang!” plays. It’s effortless. It’s cool. It’s sexy. It’s fun.

4. Lying to You – Goldroom

Soft, effervescent pop has become a calling card for Goldroom. The sky-high choruses and hooks that are effectively backdropped against the muted, emoting verses. Once again, the formula proves faithful in the way “Lying to You” plays. It is most assuredly a summer song. One that makes no qualms about what it’s trying to be for fans of the artist. And yet, I keep coming back for more. And that is a testament to how addicting the music has become despite the similarities with Goldroom’s past works. But rest assured, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here. “Lying to You” is fleeting listen but packs just enough punch into those quick listening sessions. It’s a song that belongs on a playlist or in the midst of an album. A crowd-pleaser that you welcome when you stumble upon it every once in a while.

5. Cop vs. Phone Girl – Third Eye Blind

“Cop vs. Phone Girl” by Third Eye Blind starts out as a stripped down song before becoming more richly sounding by the thirty second mark. Then it goes back again to its original state. Stripped off but then donning a full wardrobe of sound. It’s a foil that calls back to what I wrote in this week’s review of Goldroom’s single. That dichotomy works. It’s a catchy hybrid single that throws in elements of electronica, rock and anthem with a bit of timely political self-awareness (“Why’s it so hard to say Black Lives Matter?/It doesn’t mean that you’re anti-white”). The song is a bit on the nose in terms of its overall message but the tone is positive. At the end of it all, it confidently asserts an optimistic outlook by declaring, “All the kids are alright/All the kids are alright”.

6. drugs – EDEN

I got calm Band of Horses vibes (specifically “The Funeral”) when listening to “drugs” by EDEN. And then the EDM happened. It was jarring at first. Not something I expected with such a calm start to the song but as I listened to the lyrics, it all started to make sense. “drugs” is a bit of a chaotic song but there’s also a tumultuous, self-revealing message in the song that fits with the tone. The lyrics bemoan, “Cause I’m a fucking mess sometimes/But still, I could always be whatever you wanted” and from then on, it just gets more darker and more self-loathing. It’s an odd combination of the up-tempo EDM beat combined with such introspective contempt. Yet, the song somehow manages to pull off an alright listen when considering it as a whole.

7. Grown Up Calls – Toro y Moi

Chill and wavy. Toro y Moi have crafted a slightly island-influenced single called “Grown Up Calls”. It’s an easy song on the ears and the lyrical material is just as light that details a long-distance relationship. But by the song’s two thirds mark, the whimsical nature of “Grown Up Calls” shifts to a more beat-centric, rock heavy tune. The transition is well executed as the reverb kicks in to indicate the change in style and pace. No lyrics for the remainder of the song but just a nice set of rock influenced tunes to guide you to the end. It’s a clean and calm listen that becomes frenetic without putting off it’s listeners by the end.

8. Wolf – Skott

There’s a certain confidence in the vocal delivery in “Wolf” by Skott. It’s undeniable. The fingers snap. The harp cascades. The piano metronomes through its repetitious notes. The song is so simple and yet it’s simplicity asserts a presence in the listeners years. And that’s because “Wolf” is wholly reminiscent of those songs featuring powerhouse vocals of the world’s Amy Winehouses, Beyonces and Adeles. That is to say that Skott’s voice shines brightest here. It dips, eddies then glides back upwards with such ease that her entire performance becomes mesmerizing. A quiet yet powerful single, “Wolf”  is an optimistic sign of things to come for this Scandinavian artist.

Father John Misty: “Real Love Baby”

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Coca Cola in a glass bottle. Lennon and Yoko. The Free Love Movement. Nixon and Ford. The Anti-War Protests. Disco fever. The 1970s. Father John Misty has crafted for us a summer song that mixes pure vintage sounds with a nostalgic trip back to that bygone era. “Real Love Baby” acts as a soundtrack to that lionized decade of flower crowns, circular shades and bike handle ribbons. This is a song that could be easily found in the My Girl soundtrack or in a throwback commercial for a household product harkening back to its glory days. That is to say there is a certain jingle to the way “Real Love” plays. The feedback-laden vocals and the repetitious chorus motivate a contagious bout of finger snapping and feet tapping. It’s a song that sticks itself into your head and buries itself in there like a welcomed audible host.

But there’s an effervescent cheeriness to “Real Love Baby” that I can’t just shake. It’s actually shocking in an odd way. And that’s because the song’s temperament is a huge departure from the meandering and sometimes raw, emotional core of Father John Misty’s most recent album, I Love You Honey Bear. In this song, Tillman achingly coos, “I’m a flower, you’re my bee/It’s much older than you and me/I’m in love, I’m alive/I belong to the stars and sky”. That sense of nirvana-like affectation seems so disconnected from the dark, brooding bodies of his previous work. Yet, that dissonance would be more jarring if the song wasn’t so damn good to begin with. “Real Love Baby” is the definition of an infectious summer montage tune, with just enough hints of instrumentation in the light drum beat, guitar licks, and tambourine taps that keeps the pulses of this song kicking to life from the very beginning.

Yes, “Real Love Baby” is a gentle rock ballad that calls back to a supposedly idealized moment in time. But I also have to mention Tillman’s evangelical background because “Real Love Baby” sings like a Sunday hymn. The layered choruses praised throughout and the repetitive nature of its song structure lend some credence to this argument. I could almost envision myself standing in a pew, belting out these lines with a rousing congregation, feeling right at home. And maybe that’s what Father John Misty was going for with “Real Love Baby” – a transcendental distraction that is trojan horsed into the structure of a ’70’s love ballad. That, or maybe I’m reading into it too much. Just give the damn song a listen already and decide for yourself.

What I’m Listening To: Week 9

1. Cold Water – Major Lazer (Feat. Justin Bieber, MØ)

Say what you will about the Canadian Ken Doll but he sure knows how to pick his features. After collaborating with Diplo on the monster hit “Where Are Ü Now”, Justin Bieber lends his pipes to a Major Lazer single entitled “Cold Water”. The song itself is another strong entry for the electronica pop pantheon. As the beats echo and vocals warble, they give off some respite from the damning Heat Dome of 2016. It’s an invited distraction for our senses, keeping focus on our ears and relieving our sweat glands in the process. The title itself and the rippling visuals in the lyrical music video further reinforce that “cooling” effect. With a soaringly sonic tune and an addicting hook, “Cold Water” keeps you listening all the way through. It’s another pop anthem with a stadium-minded presence, bound to be a massive (yet late) summer hit for Bieber, Lazer and MØ.

Watch the lyrical music video for “Cold Water” by Major Lazer below: 

2. Hyper Dark – Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells returns with a moody, industrial sounding single entitled “Hyper Dark”. The song plays in a restrained manner while holding just enough audible tension to keep us listeners interested. A direct descendant of noise pop, the distorted whirrs, random clicks and feedback sounds that pervade “Hyper Dark” seem random at first. Then after a few listens, a faint pattern of seemingly randomized noise emerges in the song’s progression. There’s a slight trickle of tunes, a subtle flicker of effects, something there that’s meant to be just barely noticed. It’s a far departure from their more enthusiastically sounding singles but something to be enthusiastic about nonetheless.

3. If I Ever Was a Child – Wilco

Wilco recently announced a new album titled Schmilco. And I’m excited. I’m excited because I’ve listened to “If I Ever Was a Child”, their newest single and I want more. Right Now. “If I Ever Was a Child” paints a poignantly nostalgic picture of one’s childhood. It’s a dark song, carefully sifting through one’s past haunts and current pains. Being caught in a state of reminisce, Jeff Tweedy, the lead vocalist, sings pointed lyrics such as, “I never was alone/Long enough to know/If I ever was a child”. And that there is the wistfulness of adulthood we’ve all faced succinctly expressed in just three short statements. Moreover, the country/indie influenced tune here is subtle yet powerful. And it’s catchy too. There is life coursing in the song’s verses and choruses, a streak of audible optimism in spite of all the darkened emotions expressed within the lyrics. Wilco’s newest album, Schmilco, is scheduled to drop on September 9th.

4. 7/11 – Tate Tucker

There’s a distinct split in Tate Tucker’s newest single “7/11” that caught me off-guard. But I have to say that it just barely manages to work. The first half is 100% rap with Tate Tucker unleashing a torrent of verses extolling the party life. The introductory chorus sings, “Stop drinkin’ at 7/Woke up at 11”. What follows shortly after is Tate Tucker’s aptitude for wordplay. He deftly raps, “Cordially/Informally/Informing me/Of the formalities/That’s sure to be”. Now, I’m not exactly sure what all of this means but it sure sounds nice coming off rapid-fire from the rapper’s mouth. Then cue the break and transition into a more soulful and electro-dance influenced phase. It’s a off-kilter song, a bit unsure of what it wants to be. Yet, it’s still as catchy as hell and a fun summer listen from the up-and-coming artist.

5. Tiimmy Turner – Desiigner

And so it goes the way of Desiigner’s break-out hit, “Panda”, where there are only one or two decipherable words (“Timmy” and “Turner”. Go figure) in the entirety of his new single, “Tiimmy Turner”. Yet, we all know that won’t stop us from actually enjoying the song. There’s a controlled cadence in here, less frantic and more flow-oriented than “Panda”. It’s good to know that Desiigner can show such restraint in his delivery. And as he starts to show us his true range, “Panda” will always be the springboard that cemented his audience. But in that case, “Tiimmy Turner” then becomes the first decent attempt (Sorry New English) at creating a sound for his fans that is fresh, entrancing and exciting.

6. Bleeding Heart – Regina Spektor

Believe it or not, I was a fan of Regina Spektor since her “Begin to Hope” days. Sure, this was most likely due to my sister’s tyrannical control over the car stereo during family trips. Back then, similar artists such as Sarah Bareilles, Paramore, Ingrid Michaelson, and KT Tunstall reigned supreme. So, it’s pleasantly surprising to hear Regina Spektor back with the new single “Bleeding Heart”. The song starts of whimsically as if one were caught in a fairytale atmosphere. But then at the chorus, the song really kicks in, sending itself into an unforeseen frenzy. It’s a song of duality (like Tate Tucker’s “7/11”), not in a profound philosophical sense but in the way that it listens. Soft then hard. Light then heavy. Switches like these are difficult to pull off in a song but Regina Spektor manages well here in “Bleeding Heart”.

7. Not Nice – PARTYNEXTDOOR

Tropics influenced “Not Nice” single by PARTYNEXTDOOR listens like the more dancehall influenced cousin of Drake’s “Controlla”. The song is incredibly simple, just a steady drum beat and a steelpan metronome guiding the vocal delivery all the way through the song. The vocals pine, “Girl you’re not nice, you’re rude/Want me to feel like I’m new/Want me to watch you do you.” With a finger-gun aimed at his exes, PARTYNEXTDOOR fires vocal shots at them one by one, calling them out with ease on the state of their true characters. It’s the sonic version of character assassination, the best part being how well the song distracts from those sentiments through its cool, comfortable and sleek melody of sounds.

 

 

Bad Movies with the Girlfriend: “Me Before You”

Me Before YouPhoto by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The first time the Girlfriend and I tried to catch a showing of “Me Before You”, she was personally invited to an AMC advanced screening. It was scheduled for 7 pm sharp, a week before the wide release and she was, for lack of a better term, HYPED. However, there were just three obstacles that stood in our way. One, it was first-come-first-serve. Two, the theatre was in Central Jersey. Three, I work full-time in NYC. But there I was, a young professional unwilling to let down his gal-pal during her life-defining moment. I tried my absolute best to get us there on time. But by the time we arrived at the box office, all of the tickets were claimed and the movie was well under way. Lesson learned. Don’t underrate the combined viewership power of teenyboppers, soccer moms and elderly cliques. There are good reasons why movies like these manage to defy expectations by still getting made. Anyways, we were offered vouchers as consolation prizes. I quickly promised her we’d see it when it was in theaters. We got dinner at the local pub. 

The second time the Girlfriend and I tried to watch “Me Before You” we were strolling around her neighborhood after dinner. With no plans, we gave a half-hearted attempt at being ‘spontaneous’ and dropped by the local theatre. Now, this theatre is one of those places where you choose your seats in advance. While we saw that the showing was packed other than the very front row, we still opted to purchase the last two seats way in front. No, I had no idea what we were thinking. Maybe it was the sheer look of joy on her face. Maybe it was because I let her down on our first attempt. But I knew we had to try and SWEET JESUS was it such a mistake. Lesson learned. Never ever pick the front row for anything other than roller coasters. Not the front row in classrooms. Not the front row in SoulCycling sessions (Did it once. Never again). And definitely not the front row for movie theatres. Our eyes were so strained that we booked it out of there in the middle of the “Bridget Jones’ Baby” trailer.

The third time the Girlfriend and I tried to watch “Me Before You” we streamed it online. Yes, I understand. Illegal! Shame! But the time/gas/energy we expended in our pursuit to watch this godforsaken movie seemed economically equivalent to two regular priced adult passes. And moreover, our passes expired in the midst of our failed conquest. We were fully intent on using them for another movie. So instead, we turned to the dark annals of the internet and I’m happy to report that it did not let us down. But while the stream had large Chinese subtitles and a pesky blurred out box in the top right corner, we refused to let these minor nuisances ruin the experience. We were both going to see this movie if it was the last good thing I’d do for her on this earth. But actually enjoying the film? That’s another story entirely.

Rain - Me Before You.jpgPhoto by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The film opens on sexy, shirtless Sam Caflin as Will Traynor, a young, rich British aristocrat living in a city that looks like London. It’s morning and he’s headed out to work after a quick shag with his fiancee. As rain pours outside, she pleads for him not to take the motorcycle (classic misdirection here). So he begrudgingly obeys and walks out the front door only to get hit by motorcycle… To be completely honest, I have no idea what they were going for here. The irony behind Sam’s paralysis is so palpable that it almost seems appropriate to laugh. Almost. I mean, I nearly did. But come on! Are you kidding me? The dude just got Mad Max: Fury Road-ed by the exact same vehicle he was supposed to drive? And now he’s paralyzed from the waist down? Just look at that photo right above. Those were his last minutes before his life would change. Wearing a nice suit that is that soaked is just the worst. Those writers did Sam Caflin dirty.

In the next scene, we meet a dragon-less, dothraki-less and unsullied-less Emilia Clarke as Louisa “Lou” Clark, a quirky 26 year old gal who just got laid off from her waitstaff job and still lives with her parents. Cue the easiest job search ever filmed for the big screen and Lou manages to take on a well-paying gig as an emotional caretaker to a fully paralyzed Will. And yes, I meant emotional caretaker because Will already has a male nurse looking after him. He’s getting his physical needs met, now he just needs an emotional partner, a forced adult play-date if you will. And so Lou is simply there to provide moral support and emotional enlightenment to the foil that is Will’s despondent state. His black clothing and dungy hairdo only cements the true state of his emotions. Will has essentially gone emo. All that’s missing is a tee from Hot Topic, a lip ring and a pair of Doc Martens. So, for the next half hour, Will broods, grumps and harumphs as Lou toes the wire between cutesy, klutzy and kooky all while performing her duties. I get it. It’s not supposed to be easy but it’s supposed to look cute. Mission accomplished.

But then it happens. The two finally find flickers of affection by…. bonding over a foreign movie and then attending an orchestral concert together???

….

…..

……I mean, COME ON, are we really going to do this again? A pivotal part in the main character’s relationship catalyzed by attending a music show or watching a film together? The opera in Pretty Woman? Waiting in line at the movies in Annie Hall? The Graduate matinee in 500 Days of Summer? The 90’s movie marathon in Pitch Perfect? Tripping on molly while at Coachella in We Are Your Friends? Need I go on? This is a tired old Hollywood trope that’s been dragged out and beaten to a pulp for the umpteenth time. It needs to die a short, sweet merciful death. People find other ways of falling in love. Wake up Hollywood! Sometimes they’re actually nice to each other from the start. Other times they actually try asking the other person out on a date. Couples don’t share a cathartic experience like watching a movie or attending a concert BEFORE they’re interested. That usually happens AFTER the fact. Get a grip. Whatever. I’m nitpicking. Yes, I’m done. It’s fine.

Me Before You SistersPhoto by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Eventually, the main conflict of the movie takes shape when Lou finds out Will plans to die via an assisted suicide program in Switzerland. So Lou takes this as a challenge and plans out an excursion to a horse race, a wedding and a birthday dinner. This feels like one of those instances where you know a character goes in with the right intentions but the actual objective is completely off-mark. But! It seems as if Will is happier. As if he’s actually changing his mind about, well, kicking the bucket. He appears to be enjoying the time he’s spending with Lou. He starts to allow himself to be caught up in the whimsy, wonderful and “romantical” (as the Girlfriend would say) whirlwind of these meticulously planned adventures. And yet, on Lou and Will’s final trip to the island of Mauritus, Will reveals to her that he’s still intent on dying. Lou storms off devastated. Will pensively stares out into the dark ocean. Their relationship is in ruins. Cue the waterworks for the Girlfriend.

Full disclaimer, I fell asleep around this part. It was 1 am and I had a late night dinner that was kicking in real hard. But apparently I didn’t miss much! According to the Girlfriend’s abridged summary, Lou made it in time over to Switzerland to speak with Will before his final moments. They made up. He also wrote her the most “romantical” letter that she reads while exploring Paris. There, he writes to her, instructing her to buy a perfume, eat a croissant and most importantly, to live well. Random but I’ll allow it. Cue credits. And just at that moment, I remember that I sleepily nodded right into the Girlfriend’s tear-stricken face. The wetness of her cheeks surprised me. I hadn’t realized she was crying! And just at that moment did she also realize that I was asleep for the last 30 minutes of this movie. After a few quick punches, in a quick lie to appease her justified annoyance with me, I told her I liked the movie. But I actually didn’t. And I fully expected to go into this review expounding upon why I didn’t enjoy the movie. But in retrospect, I would be lying if I said such a thing.

To be completely truthful, Me Before You was a sweet yet fleeting film. It hits its emotional beats when it needs to and quickly steps out your mind once the credits roll. It won’t change your life or your perspectives on love, life and death. But now that I think about it, the movie’s fleeting quality is kind of a great metaphor for what Will emotionally did to Lou throughout the movie… But anyways, that is to say that there was no grand concept or noble theme the film was trying to espouse. And I can appreciate that. Real experiences will always trump cinema (the exception being Mad Max: Fury Road, The Godfather I & II and The Sandlot). All it was doing was telling a story about two people crossing paths for a brief moment. One can respect that without having to enjoy it. I actually liked that it provided an affecting experience for the Girlfriend. It tells me that there’s value to be found in the film, it’s just that I’m the wrong person to go about it.

So somewhere in there, utterly invisible to my eye and intangible to my senses, is some legitimacy in the film’s emotional resonance. Or it may be that the Girlfriend just has terrible taste in films. But since she reads this website regularly, I’m prone to go with the former. But in all honesty, it would be too immature and easy of me to chalk it up to gender norms and movie preferences. So we just won’t go there. Ultimately, Me Before You was NOT a bad movie. It was an OK movie. A satisfactory movie. A “thanks for your participation” movie. I know. Shock, shock, horror, horror. How could you possibly review a movie in an article entitled “Bad Movies with the Girlfriend” but not say it is a bad movie? Well. I’m pretty keen on taking the L on this one and moving on. I thought Emilia Clarke’s eyebrow acting was on par and Sad and Rich Finnick makes for someone I can partially sympathize with. So there it is. I officially pronounce the inaugural issue of a “Bad Movie with the Girlfriend” to be a complete and utter failure of a write-up. DEFCON 5. We have a mediocre-at-best film on our hands. Nevertheless, I promise to make it up to you all. The next installation will feature a horrific, nightmare-fueled vision of a film that’s been etched into my mind’s eye…

Mother’s Day.