Bon Iver’s Avalanche of Sound
Lyrical punch amid aural chaos proves maddening and mesmerizing
By Doug Freeman,
2:40PM, Sun. Jan. 21, 2018
Aesthetically divisive – that’s Justin Vernon. 22, A Million, his third LP as Bon Iver, polarized fans by drenching his high trill in samples and warped production that buried his lyrical vulnerability. Performances have likewise infuriated and enthralled. Saturday’s opening of a three-night stand at the Moody Theater proved decidedly triumphant.
Dual drummer quintet accented by brass fivepiece Trombone Paradise, Bon Iver leaned heavily on the new release, the hourlong, 14-song set and additional two-tune encore at times spinning a disorienting aural orbit amid the throbbing strobe lights and maddening beats. Yet the songs themselves resonated despite Vernon’s vocals being drowned in effects, and the sparser, back-catalog tunes melded easily with the sonic cavalcade of the set.
“Ah shit, there are a lot of buttons up here,” laughed the singer as he misfired in closing the main set on the haunting, looped a cappella of “Woods.”
The quip substatiated everything that preceded it, with the song from 2009’s Blood Bank EP climbing into a cacophonous avalanche that seemed to want to see how far Vernon could push both the tune and the audience without losing either. It also served as a reminder of the production trajectory Vernon set for himself from the outset, even as the more stripped emotional pull of songs like “Skinny Love,” delivered in encore, remain definitive for the Wisconsin native.
That hit marked the only time the bandleasder touched on his debut, but even as the thread from 2007’s For Emma to 2016’s 22, A Million may be knotted, it’s not unconnected. The late-set run from 2011’s eponymous effort – “Wash.,” “Perth,” “Minnesota, WI,” and standout “Holocene” – rounded down the show spectacularly and drew the line back through his songs without breaking it.
What remains central to Vernon’s songwriting, even in the audio miasma, is a search for connection, frustrated yet still held tight in belief. Whether escaping to the solitary woods or digging a trench in the bed of production, the author revels in being emotionally furtive and allusive in his attempts to reconcile simultaneous want and repulsion. He’s fiercely present in the material’s raw emotion and stubbornly absent in the wash of its noise.
Exceptional moments that arose as the set settled into new songs “29 #Strafford Apts,” “8 (Circle),” and “45” were continually upended, as when “21 Moon Water” got lost in a barrage that sounded like shifting stations across the radio dial. That’s Bon Iver all – signals surfacing amid the static just enough to throw an emotional punch before diving back into the obscuring void. The effect remains both maddening and mesmerizing.
ACL Live at the Moody Theater set list, 1.20.18“715 (Creeks)” “10 (Death Breast)” “666 (Upsidedowncross)” “29 #Strafford Apts” “33 ‘God’” “21 (Moon Water)” “8 (Circle)” “45” “1000000 (Million)” “Wash.” “Perth” “Minnesota, WI” “Holocene” “Woods” Encore “Skinny Love” “22 (Over Soon)”