Watching Justin Vernon play a sold-out show at Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night was a great reminder of an unlikely proverb: Wonderful things can happen when you quit. Quitting leaves room for the unknown and gives space to abrupt eruptions. Vernon began his set with the same words that begin his latest album, 22, A Million, a lilting, helium-heady voice carefully reminds “It might be over soon.” But the voice isn’t ominous, it’s peaceful. There’s serenity in embracing the uncertain instead of fighting it.
The tale of an artist’s meteoric rise gets told over and over, to the point that it assumes a sheen of the mythic, so most Justin Vernon fans know that after a number of years struggling to be a musician, Vernon decided to and go embrace uncertainty. He left his community and his friends, went back to a remote cabin outside his hometown of Eaux Claire, Wisconsin, and wrote nearly wordless melodies about his broken heart, depression, and sense of isolation. These songs eventually became For Emma, Forever Ago and that album became a year-defining favorite, rocketing him from relative unknown to musical folk hero.
Then, Justin Vernon quit again.
The only real criticism his 2011 follow-up Bon Iver, Bon Iver received was that it wasn’t the same stripped down folk-glitch he’d debuted with. After leaving the world of the cabin, Vernon abandoned his personal isolation, too, and brought in a whole host of players and ideas to fill out the sound — or perhaps the entire genre of sound — he’d created. Many artists who start small with limited tools and then later expand face this same breed of criticism.
In some ways, it’s the crux of the debate for fans of the folk tradition: What is it called when folk music goes electronic? Is it still folk music? Should we stay sitting on stools and beating on a washboard with a wooden spoon forever? I tend to struggle more with revivalists than those using Pro Tools — reactionary practices never make a better world. We have the entire historical timeline, musical or otherwise, as proof of that.