(Justin Vernon gone a-Knopflering? Photo by Graham Tolbert)
Aware Super Theatre, Sydney, February 17
IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, just like some of his song title structures (10dEAThbREast, anyone? Or how about 666 ʇ ?), that Bon Iver – Justin Vernon, and tightknit band – is selling out two nights at this 9000-seater auditorium with the stupid name. To an audience which seems to cover at least half the never-the-twain musical and age-demographic tribes of Sydney, most of whom would have had no inclination to see him at the Spiegeltent on his first tour in 2009, or even at the Opera House in 2012 when he was an on-trend indie act.
I mean, have you heard his songs? I don’t mean the quality – Holocene once again lifts in its crushing and then soars in its abandonment, a song that makes a lie of its hook line, “I was not magnificent”; Skinny Love is a communal celebration, as the man near me singing at the top of his voice made clear. I mean the sounds. There are mechanised glitches and squelches over the top of slashes and throbs. There are recognisable instruments and unrecognisable distortions. There is some kind of treatment on almost all the vocals – lead and backing – and Vernon’s principal vocal state, treated or otherwise, is the not universally loved falsetto.
That’s some weird shit for the mainstream. The Kanye and Taylor Swift fandoms – who have seen him collaborate with their favourite – can’t be driving all this cross-border appeal, surely? No, but those twin poles might give you a clue what lies behind all this.
The night opens with Speyside, Vernon on acoustic guitar accompanied by a saxophone, for a song that in its mood-settling tempo, more murmured than sung vocal, and elegant MOR ambience, feels like something Mark Knopfler would have included on the Local Hero soundtrack. And no, not just because Vernon is sporting a headband placed in advance/defiance of a retreating hairline.
When the full band arrives, they carry through the loops and electrics, double drums (one thunderous on toms beneath; one with a lighter rhythms on top) and vocal sounds both straight and bent, to bring to life early ‘80s Peter Gabriel suddenly engaging Pharrell Williams. Then they slide from a stately midtempo ballad of the kind that might once have been ripe for Steve Winwood, but with a guitar solo of prog dimensions (Faith), into U(Man Like) an intense number, complete with harmonica, that can’t hide its racing in the streets nature even under twin synths.
(Out of the shadows, into the light - Bon Iver in Sydney. Photo by Jordan Munns)
Ah, it’s becoming clearer now.
So a song emerges from a tangle of blurping and beeping into a free jazz-like breakdown that seems like every man for himself, but the core remains a steadfast pop cri-de-coeur that would hold up a Harry Styles or, god help us, Vance Joy, while another imagines New York’s stark No Wave minimalists Suicide adding LA’s tortured R&B modernist Frank Ocean, and doubles the feels.
Later we get Re: stacks that surely is Jackson Browne pitched very high but still classically posed; -45- and Naeem that are two shades of a boomer film soundtrack (the former taking us to a tragic second act climax; the latter the recovery/uplifting montage scene that follows, probably including running up library steps); and in the encore, Neil Young circa 1970 is refashioned in the wistful-in-anticipation Flume.
That’s it: whatever the sounds trying to rebuff easy attraction, underneath it Vernon is making broad spectrum, recognisably popular, pop and rock. What’s more, whatever the camouflage he strenuously – sometimes too strenuously – overlays, most of the time there is no disguising the emotional truth.
No wonder people are stacked to the ceiling.
Bon Iver play Riverstage, Brisbane, on March 2, and Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, March 4-5.
A version of this review ran originally in the Sydney Morning Herald.