For an artist who has achieved a global footprint not just as the man behind Bon Iver but also as the artist responsible for pushing big-name hip-hop acts like Kanye and Chance the Rapper to meld gospel with Auto-Tune, Justin Vernon could have his pick of any collaborator, any studio, any city in the world. But against all odds, he’s stayed fiercely, stubbornly rooted in his local community, to the point that he’s been almost exclusively performing and working in his hometown.
This tether to the rolling hills of West Central Wisconsin has never been so visible than at the Eaux Claires festival, where Vernon began his 2016 set with a brief poem from the local author Michael Perry about the river rushing behind us and his neighbor’s own coursing artistic desires. This was the only place that Bon Iver could debut this new album, a collection of songs rooted in the water and fields and dug-down roots of his own upbringing: at a festival that refuses to conform to any preconceived notions about trends, style, or profitability, and is so completely in step with Vernon’s own desires. Now more than ever, Justin has a firm grip on the steering wheel of his own artistic trajectory, and when he sauntered out on stage, I don’t remember him ever looking so free.
More Eaux Claires 2016 Coverage:
- Justin Vernon unveils new album and a new side to Bon Iver at Eaux Claires festival
- Eaux Claires Day One: Recap and photos
- Eaux Claires Day Two: Recap and photos
We learned a lot about Bon Iver’s new album during the band’s 80-minute set: It’s called 22, A Million. It’s the most electronically focused album of Bon Iver’s catalog, but is also anchored by more saxophones than you’d see in most 1940s big bands. And it’s the culmination of Vernon’s “no apologies” musical tastes; his ensuing, encompassing dedication to localness; and the complete immersion in the work of his talented circle of friends.
Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” taunts the listener with a classic Vernon line, the kind that jumps out in a sea of opaque lyrics and hits you over the head with its literalness and depth: “It might be over soon.” The line is repeated, daring you to contemplate your mortality as he loops his own voice into sky-high harmonies. A tiny, high pitched voice repeats it again, sounding like the sinewy vocals of an old soul singer being sampled and sped up into a hip-hop track. And just when you think the beat is going to drop, Mike Lewis steps out of the shadows to deliver an E Street Band-worthy saxophone solo as the crowd goes wild.
There is not an easily definable sound on 22, A Million. By the second track, the two drummers are dueling with one another, creating a Marijuana Deathsquads-style brooding breakdown, and suddenly the entire stage is filled with saxophones. There are eight saxophones, and then nine, but they aren’t overpowering; to the contrary, they appear to be locked into a wickedly precise harmony that resembles the tightly woven vocal work of the Staves and the reedy quality of Vernon’s own voice.
On the third song Vernon is alone, piling up his vocal tracks like building blocks, channeling Imogen Heap. Then he’s breaking into a frenetic pop track, and then stripping everything away for a spare alt-country song (“29 #Strafford APTS”). “There ain’t no meaning anymore,” he sings, and I try to stop looking for one. The pacing of the show is uneven, but also mesmerizing, somehow; the audience isn’t quite sure how to respond, rapt and ravenous for an artist who has coyly kept them at bay.
“That’s the end of side A,” Vernon says bluntly, addressing the crowd directly for the first time. “It feels super cool playing it live for the first time.”
The second side of the album begins with a song Vernon debuted at Eaux Claires last year, “661 1,” and is followed swiftly by one of the most enthralling pieces of the night, the crescendoing “21 M◊◊N WATER.” The saxophones (who Vernon calls the “Sad Sax of Sh*t”) returned, as did a series of unnerving computer manipulated sounds that could only be described as alien shrieks. “8 (circle)” sounds like it could be an ode to a fallen friend (“I’m standing in your street now / carrying his guitar,” he sang), while the second to last song, “____45_____,” seemed to be one of the most personal songs of the night, and spoke to unknown struggles and triumphs in lyrics about crawling through a metaphorical fire.
And for the final song of the new album, Vernon brought out Sam Amidon, who had spent most of the afternoon wandering through the grounds with a handful of guitarists (including Minneapolis’s own Al Church) to teach the audience how to sing along with the chorus of the song. The crowd was slow to chime in, perhaps because many were trying to absorb all the twisted passageways and turns of phrase as they were being unveiled, but we did manage to get it together for the final chorus: “When the days have no numbers,” we sang-sighed, at the end of a collection of songs that seem to speak to the numbers that have been filling Vernon’s mind.
For the second portion of Bon Iver’s set, the Staves made an all-too-short appearance to assist with a stunning rendition of “Beach Baby,” and Vernon followed it up with a glitchy and dance-floor-ready remake of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver track “Minnesota, WI,” and a somber take on “Creature Fear.”
And the performance ended with Vernon bringing out a hero, Bruce Hornsby, for a reimagining of “Beth/Rest,” mere hours after inviting Hornsby to perform his entire debut record, The Way it Is, to a surprisingly receptive field of fans.
“Humbled and thankful — that’s the only thing, when people ask me how I’m doing,” Vernon said, in trademark Vernon style. And while he has every right to be humbled by the fact that these artists, these fans, will drive out to a literal farm in the Midwest to rally around his vision for a festival and his relentless hometown pride, what is truly remarkable about this endeavor is that such unguarded sincerity — a trait often used for shooting practice in this irony-obsessed, cynical world — can be met with such warmth.
In 2016, Bon Iver somehow exists in this improbable space between adult contemporary, touchy-feely nostalgia, and cutting-edge hip-hop. All of the channels are open, and Justin Vernon is out here with arms open wide.
Track listing for 22, A Million:
1. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
2. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄
3. 715 – CR∑∑KS
4. 33 “GOD”
5. 29 #Strafford APTS
6. 666 ʇ
7. 21 M◊◊N WATER
8. 8 (circle)
10. 00000 Million
Lyrics to “00000, A Million”:
must’ve been forces, that took me on them wild courses
who knows how many poses, that I’ve been in
but them the main closest, hark! it gives meaning Mine
i cannot really post this, AH feel the signs
i worried about rain and i worried bout lightning
marking the slope, slung low in the highlands
where the days have no numbers
if it’s harmed, its harmed me, it’ll harm, i let it in
oh the old modus: out to be leading live
said, comes the old ponens, demit to strive
a word about Gnosis: it ain’t gonna buy the groceries
or middle-out locusts, or weigh to find
i hurry boug shame, and i worry bout a worn path
and i wander off, just to come back home
turning to waltz, hold high in the lowlands
’cause the days have no numbers’
it harms me, it harms me, it harms like a lamb
so i can depose this, partial to the bleeding vines
spose you can’t hold shit. how high I’ve been
what a river don’t know is: to climb out and heed a line
to slow among roses, or stay behind
I’ve been to that grove
where no matter the source is
and walked it off: how long i’d last
sore-ring to cope, whole band on the canyon
‘when the days have no numbers’
well it harms it harms me it harms, ill let it in
Videos of the two released tracks, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”:
More photos of Bon Iver at Eaux Claires by Nate Ryan: