“This is the one!” an audience member cried as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon led his band into “Flume” at the Hammersmith Apollo.
The song is the lead track from For Emma, Forever Ago, one of the defining break-up albums of the 2000s. Written by Vernon in rural Wisconsin as he nursed a broken heart, and officially released a decade ago this month, it depicts him as “blinded” and “crippled”, like a neurotically sensitive hero from a German Romantic novel. The Sorrows of Young Vernon, perhaps.
Since then there have been two more Bon Iver albums. Each has tried to escape the fame of the break-up album, chiefly through the disruptive use of technology. The first night of the band’s eight-night residency at the Apollo opened with the most recent release, 22, A Million, played in its entirety.
Unfolding on an artfully lit stage framed by white stringy tendrils, like a profusion of wintry shrubbery, the songs encrypted the band’s folk-rock origins in layers of computer-processing. In “22 (Over Soon)”, Vernon stood at an electronic console singing in a hymnal falsetto, accompanied by looped vocals and a sample of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Michael Lewis added a plaintive sax solo to the collage of voices. “715 (Creeks)” was high-tech a cappella with software-altered vocals.
The singer-songwriter and his four bandmates, supplemented by a five-strong brass section, seemed in danger of losing the audience during the abstracted opening to “21 Moon Water”. But the track developed into a vigorous workout absent from the recorded version, with two drummers adding extra force.
Despite Vernon’s introspective reputation — he wore headphones on stage as though in the studio — he showed a deft understanding of the dynamics of live performance. This became especially clear when the musicians returned after an interval to play older Bon Iver songs.
“Perth”, from 2011’s Bon Iver, set Vernon’s graceful electric guitar riff against a military drumbeat and imposing brass; the riff finally buckled into loud feedback, more pronounced than on the album. The same album’s “Holocene” freighted its message of humility in the face of immense American landscapes with optimistic swells of sound.
“Creature Fear” built into a fierce sonic assault, with main drummer Sean Carey standing up thrashing at his kit: an exhilarating note on which to exit before the encore. The finale was “For Emma”, in which Vernon fluted a barbed farewell to his long-gone ex. To still be singing songs addressed to her might seem a millstone. But the show underlined how far Bon Iver have moved on musically.
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