To emphasize that I like Bon Iver, I would say that I know all the words to his songs, but that's not possible and nobody does. His lyrics, if they can be called that, consist of beautiful, round vowels delivered in falsetto and mumbled, clipped consonants hardly delivered at all. Yet last night at the Fox Theater, the second of three Bon Iver performances —the last is tonight — not knowing the words didn't stop the crowd from enthusiastically joining the chorus of wailing and mumbo-jumbo. As this is the first stop of an album tour, I suspect many more will chime in along the way.
On the new album, 22, A Million, there are a few portentous phrases to be made out: "It might be over soon" being one, and "I'd be happy as hell if you'd stay for tea." But the artist's will to obscure himself and his work has reached new, self-aware heights just as his work has become anything but obscure. Try to decipher, for instance, the name — or better yet interpret the meaning — of tracks like the one that first lyric comes from, called "22 (OVER S∞∞N)." Is that, like, a double rune?
Bon Iver was created in 2007 by Justin Vernon, recordings made in a lonely Wisconsin cabin under that name for the breakthrough For Emma, Forever Ago. Following up his original Thoreau/recluse fantasy, Vernon has taken to hiding other parts of himself: his words, for instance, starting in earnest on his second, self-titled album Bon Iver. Now on his third album, it's his voice. Though it's always been his main instrument and subject to distortion, now it's totally picked apart and radically altered from moment to moment with a variety of custom-built equipment. This is the auto-tuning, self-harmonizing stuff that Kanye picked up from him: The influence seems to have cut both ways, and now Vernon can't help but be be a little bit Kanye's version of Bon Iver.
Vernon opened the show with 22 (OVER S∞∞N), as he had the previous night and I imagine he will this evening. His presence onstage was obscured in shadow and through light effects. He played through most of 22, A Million, which has received positive reviews, and then trotted out a few tracks from the second album. The crowd with many bearded and be-flanneled sad-boy types enthusiastic to see their style-icon was into it. We jammed out to "Beth/Rest," (I know!) a divisive track with a long, 80s-style sax solo that's equal parts cheesy and sincere. That's Vernon's tightrope: There are moments it's tough to take Bon Iver seriously — I had a few last night — and that's something he mostly demands. Many expressed disappointed that Vernon didn't return to the earnest, full-throated For Emma as an encore, which he'd done the previous night. Maybe he will tonight. Regardless, his confident, brash, and fun performance was something that couldn't be obscured. It was seriously good.