We all know about the transformation of the life of Justin Vernon in recent years, from the humble beginnings of writing his debut album in a cabin to hanging out with Kanye. On For Emma, Forever Ago he emerged as an ethereal, bearded troubadour who needed little more than his delicate voice and acoustic guitar to put across his tales of heartache. However, his self-titled second album is more ambitious in terms of production and the transformation of Bon Iver as a live performer is clearly evident as his backing band was nine bodies strong, including three horns, a violinist and sometimes two drummers.
In a live setting though (Toronto’s Sound Academy) , the new album morphs into something more intrinsic and outright. Nothing ever sounds as you might expect. The trombone intro on ‘Creature Fear’ is submerged, as if we were hearing it from the other side of the harborfront. The band weave horns, guitars, strings, and cymbals through the clicks and clacks of Vernon’s intricate arrangements to arrive at a fairly beautiful din. On ‘Blood Bank’, the lighting dims to a murderous red and, led by a ferocious Vernon on feral electric-guitar, the solos shake the foundations of the Sound Academy. It takes a special breed of artist to twist those words, which are already fraught with melancholy and longing, into a thunderous battle cry.
Occasionally, the songs get lost in the chaos. ‘Beth/Rest’, with its collision of keyboards, saxophone, and Vernon’s processed vocals, is so diffused that it misses its target, and In the vast arena, it is difficult to find the intimacy that one would expect from a Bon Iver concert. Vernon himself even comments on the fact that “they really stuffed you in here”, however once the opening chords were struck from a stripped down version of ‘Flume’ and ‘Re: Stacks’ all focus is on Vernon as he gently strums away and serenades with that tragic falsetto.
The band close the set with ‘Calgary’, introduced as “sorta about a town in Canada,” and the track is awash with a plethora of synthesizers, drums, and other instrumentation that brings the texture to its trademark sound while the haunting sound of ‘Skinny Love’ hovers over the crowd bringing immediate tenderness between Bon Iver and the audience, causing everyone to sing along in unison. Justin Vernon’s focus and sound may have widened since his debut album but his strange siren song is just as alluring as ever.