For Emma, Forever ago, a record was born in a remote Wisconsin forest cabin. Its immediacy rang out: heartache, loss, regret, loneliness. All from one man too, Justin Vernon. But Vernon was quick to prove he wasn’t just another lovelorn beardy with a battered guitar. Performed live, seemingly straight-up folk songs took on jazzy bespoke arrangements with a careering experimental edge. An edge Vernon continued to push with the follow-up Blood Bank EP and fleeting forays into stoner soft-rock (GAYNGS) and ambient post-rock/electronica (Volcano Choir) – and of course lending his pitch-addled vocal to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. However it is album number two that is eponymous to Bon Iver and while maintaining the sentiment of its predecessor, Bon Iver inflated from dusty acoustic balladry to something more lavishly produced, creating a dream-like album – an audacious awakening from a winter of solitude.
Vernon wears his company well, stood centre-stage on Dublin’s Grand Canal Theatre, an eight-strong band is marshalled around him armed with guitars, keyboards, violins, chimes, trumpet, clarinet, French horn, trombone, saxophone, bass-saxophone and two sets of drums; Bon Iver is no longer one man. When a wash of sounds deluges the amphitheatre, ‘Perth’ emerges as the flood draws back. Bon Iver the record is a drunk-punch collage of feeling and intricacies – live, it is a pool of swirling senses. Conducted by a floating falsetto, clouds of billowing horns swell, punctuated by crisp, rattling percussion. All played out with striking force; powerful and often times heavy, but never dense – and always on the cusp of overriding emotion.
There are layers of instrumentation but none are ornate, each has a lucidity and purpose. Like sticking your head into a high-end speaker and hearing every single note, the clarity of every strand of music pulls at fresh and buried memories while indecipherable lyrics sing the story of life.
In all its fragility, ‘Holocene’ bellows with rumbling drums and rousing subtleties. The band seems to pause at a moment of gut-wrenching realisation when Justin cries, “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent” … then lifting off in a flutter of reflective disposition. ‘Towers’ shuffles with railroad-cart rhythms and country-tinged swagger and it takes ‘Flume’ to break Vernon’s silence and the spell of the new album. ‘Flume’ too has grown since its humble cabin days, re-upholstered in brass it crashed and bawled along in an extended arrangement. But surprisingly it is ‘Creature Fear’ that most ties the two albums together, a blend of delicate self-indictment and a confidence in comradery played out over duelling drum kits. Comradery lies also (as Justin points out with all earnestness) with the audience – who sang back for ‘Wolves’ and stomped to ‘Skinny Love’ and duly riposted with howls and ovations at every given opportunity.
Stemming from the St. Elmo’s Fire-era of music, ‘Beth / Rest’ is the most testing song by Bon Iver. Beneath its queasy ‘80s ballad sheen is a heavy-hearted piano track, brandished by the omnipresent sax of Colin Stetson. Its lament is palpable. Just as the beauty of the spiralling clarinet in ‘Hinnom, TX’ can be heard, the brooding mood of ‘Lisbon, OH’ can be felt. And as awe-inspiring as the production of the tour is, it is this elemental connection that is inherent Justin Vernon’s music that is, in all actuality, magnificent.