In 2008, a man named Justin Vernon went into a cabin in a remote area of Wisconsin and isolated himself for four months. He emerged with a staggering set of beautiful and tragic songs that would become the Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago.
It’s a relatable story. Many of us have fantasized about taking the time away from life to do nothing but put our heart on a page. But the appeal of Vernon’s work doesn’t lie in the romance of that story; it’s in the music and the voice of the man himself. It cuts straight through pretense and artifice, bringing you back to those times you might have spent lying in bed with a lover on a Sunday afternoon, or having one of the worst arguments of your life with that same person just a few hours later. It’s about the tug of war of hearts and minds expressed in a way that keeps us coming back for more no matter what genre he explores.
In just three albums, Vernon’s work has gone from some of the most stripped-down indie folk to what is basically the closest thing you can get to EDM, all while retaining the interest of fans that look like members of Weezer.
Selling out a venue with over 2 thousand seats after going from one extreme to another as an artist is a testament to the power of Bon Iver’s work. And that’s just what he did last Wednesday night at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego.
Wearing a hoodie, headphones, and loose jeans, Vernon took the stage standing behind a table of technologic wizardry, looking more like a DJ than a grizzled indie-rock mountain man. Behind him stood 12 huge LCD screens, each about 20 feet high. In between these mammoth screens were dozens of other lights all shooting their beams in perfect synchronicty.
It was an impressive but unexpected spectacle. And what was even more surprising was the fact that he pulled it off completely. His music and persona, now in the form some sort of electronic, hip-hop, indie-rock guru, are just as immediate and compelling as they’ve ever been.
Completing the band that night were two drummers, two guitarists, a keyboardist and five saxophone players. The 12 screens behind the band gave way to a technologic alien narrative that ran through the night’s work. The first three songs were completely centered around an electronic aesthetic that only gave way slightly when Vernon announced, “We’re gonna play our new album for you now.”
That new album, 22, A Million, is Vernon’s most ambitious work by far, and hearing the songs live with all those bells and whistles was quite an experience. After Vernon and his band played the album in its entirety, the audience rose to its feet and thanked the departing musicians with thunderous applause. Bon Iver didn’t keep us waiting long, returning after only a few short minutes to play four songs from their previous two albums.
Again the band left the stage to a standing ovation. Then, as the applause finally started to recede, Vernon walked out by himself with guitar in hand and performed one of the songs that first enraptured listeners eight years ago, “Skinny Love.” It was a decidedly sweet way to end the evening and a nice reminder of just how far he’s come — and where he might someday return.