Photo by STEVE GARFINKEL
I am old enough to remember when Bon Iver was just a weird-beard folkie lumberjack with a broken heart and a bad liver haunting the woods of Wisconsin, cranking out subterranean heartsick blues in his dad’s hunting cabin like the Unabomber of Love. This was back before he went prog-rock at Newport and started a riot — that was way cray. I remember Father John Misty threatening to cut the power with an axe and the guys from Mumford & Sons had to wrestle him to the ground. Despite the confusion of the moment, when the smoke finally cleared it was obvious that the times they were a-changin’.
The disconnect from the naked light bulb starkness of 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago to the dense, 17-layer prog cake of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver was jarring — like going from Wednesday Morning, 3 AM to Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by way of TV On The Radio. Mostly, I blame Kanye, who lured him to his studio compound in Hawaii to give 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy some of that Barton Fink Feeling Vernon has in spades. But as the days turned into weeks, it turned into one of those Hotel California situations where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Bon Iver music was never the same after that.
Judging by the ecstatic crowd that packed out the Tower back in 2011 for the tour in support of Bon Iver Bon Iver, I was the sole naysayer. He doubled down on 2016’s 22, A Million, an album that is, like Kanye, either crazy-level genius or genius-level crazy depending on the day, and the multitudes that flocked to his concerts grew into a cult of the deeply devoted. Three years after releasing an album, he is able to pack out The Met for a two night run that ended last night.
The live band is a tight five piece — two drummers, two guitarists (counting Vernon) and a bassist — capable of rendering the densely idiosyncratic sonics of the last two albums with razor-sharp precision and note-perfect fidelity complimented by a magnificently choreographed light show and the Met’s perfect sound forever. They look less like a band than starship technicians manning their work stations within the elaborate H.R. Giger-esque Rube Goldberg contraption that is the stage set.
Vernon, rocking a head band and big, blocky old school earphones, is still in full possession of the most heartbreakingly beautiful falsetto to emanate from a hairy guy in blue jeans and flannel since Neil Young woke up in a burned-out building with a full moon in his eyes. That is, when he’s not atomizing his dulcet tone into bewildering fractals of sound with a Auto-Tune and sundry alchemical sonic gadgetry.
It was, all told, a transcendental performance. And live, the newer material has a chest-thumping physicality and sweaty friction that is somewhat muted on the albums, despite the crystalline clarity of the recordings. But while I’m happy to join Bon Iver’s cult for a night or two, I’m sorry to say I don’t think I will ever love what Bon Iver has become the way Justin Vernon loved Emma, like, forever ago. — JONATHAN VALANIA