On new album ’22, A MILLION’, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon dodges convention. The sturdy bones of actual songs are still there, but everything else is determinedly experimental; a free-spirited use of samples, thudding percussion, deceptive twists and turns. On the surface, he at least seems aware that sticking to emotional, standard-form folk would be too safe. And without compromising a signature Bon Iver sound, he’s reinvented the wheel.
At a secret show in the courtyard of a Berlin hotel, he proves that reinvention comes easily. With these new songs, what might sound loose and complex on record is suddenly primal and aggressive. ’22, A MILLION’’s lyrics are laugh out loud silly, at times. But live, the line “I’ve been sleeping in a stable, mate!” comes off like a war cry. These songs are free to roam in any direction they choose. The fragmented folk of ’29 #Strafford APTS’ is given a laid-back, country feel. ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ becomes a cymbal-crashing beast. For the final song, they revert back to ‘Creature Fear’, spanning back to the group’s debut album. Testament to just how unique this whole set feels, its inclusion feels oddly out of sync with what came before.
It doesn’t feel like a traditional show in any sense of the word. Tonight’s set-up sees the full band facing each other, acting like they’re in an early rehearsal. Stage attire is similarly casual. Hoodies, caps, comfy jumpers - Vernon and co. could be mistaken for a bunch of stay-at-home dads watching the football. Members of The National and Alt-J are among those in attendance, with some onlookers watching from the windows of their hotel rooms. It’s just about the most intimate setting you could expect to see this group in 2016.
But as Bon Iver’s stock has risen, Vernon has become increasingly determined to avoid the baggage of what it means to be a ‘bigger band’. Instead of playing one arena show after the other, he puts on nights like this and his own festival in Wisconsin. Instead of penning by-the-numbers emotional juggernauts for film montages, he’s stayed true to himself, making records that challenge both himself and those listening in. Special occasions such as tonight are just as vital to Bon Iver’s existence as the music itself.
10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄
715 - CRΣΣKS
29 #Strafford APTS
21 M♢♢N WATER