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.
Of course, history also proved how flimsy and circumstantial that reactionary critique was; the sounds of Bon Iver, Bon Iver are so ubiquitous in 2016 that it’s hard to imagine them ever sounding foreign, and Vernon was awarded a Best New Artist Grammy for his vision. Still, 22, A Million makes a similarly exponential jump, and it was met with similar confusion. I think even now, almost a month after it came out, most fans haven’t had enough time to sit with the album and properly figure it out. But for those who have, it’s clear that Vernon was right again; if the record is an exponential departure, it’s also exponentially effective. Bon Iver, Bon Iver is one of my favorite albums of the last decade, but 22, A Million makes it sound like a footnote in a larger thesis.
Funny thing is, he almost quit this time, too.
In speaking about the five-year hiatus between Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million, Vernon openly admitted that he thought about never returning. Or at least, never returning as Bon Iver. I don’t think there’s anyone currently working in the music industry who hasn’t felt the same way at some point in the last decade. It has become harder than ever to carve out a place that feels authentic, meaningful, and worth pouring out the time and artistic energy that this industry voraciously demands. Sometimes, it is really hard not feel homeless in a post-genre world that’s driven by musical celebrity collaboration.
Vernon’s skepticism and mistrust of capitalism — even when I might disagree with some of it contextually — is part of what fuels him to pivot every time, to create something that fits nowhere, and subsequently, displaces our ideas of what our own boundaries may be. The blown out nature of 22, A Million‘s idiosyncratic symbols, sounds and personal significances — especially when built out to an arena scale — reminded me of the importance of investing that much in my own creative impulses. Both of Bon Iver’s first two projects were built out of a desire to leave something else behind, 22, A Million feels like the first one that’s a statement about who he has become and all he still wants to be.
If Bon Iver started as a project rooted in Wisconsin soil, then 22, A Million is astral folk rendered on an eternal scale, and never was this more clear than at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night. Aside from the pure spectacle of ten digital screens displaying ever-changing runes in hues of cyan, magenta, and neon green, Vernon himself was the bridge between the singular folk of his debut and the sweeping, cosmic scope of his latest album.
The only comparison I have for the visual feast included in the show is Terence Malick’s Tree Of Life, a stream-of-consciousness contemplation of grief, eternity, and innocence that’s the most beautifully overwhelming film I’ve ever seen. These symbols and lights, though abstract, moved with the same ferocious grace as that film throughout the night. The visuals moved so quickly they were almost impossible to photograph. You had to watch intently, shirk your phone and conversation to keep up. It gently forced the crowd to be fully in the moment in a way that many arena shows can’t.
Sometimes, shows with extensive lighting and video alienate the viewer from the human aspects of a live show, but that wasn’t the case. Yes, Vernon orchestrated an entire mini-universe on this stage, willing the weird symbology and orchestral sections of his band into being, but he also could still f*ck up and start a song in the wrong key. When this happened, briefly, he grinned and laughed it off like a friend strumming on your porch might. There are no stakes when you’re conducting things exactly as you’d like to, and freedom was one of the key themes of Vernon’s live show.
The openers he selected for his show are further extensions of that artistic freedom. It’s hard to think of a bill that better encompasses the various strands of modern folk music than one featuring Hiss Golden Messenger, an outlier of traditional folk and guitar tradition led by M.C. Taylor (who has made a name for himself off relentless touring and fine-tuned releases), and Patti Smith, an interloper from the folk-rock past who is back on bills partially due to a pair of critically-acclaimed memoirs. Neither are the obvious choice for his opener, but ducking the obvious choice has always been his move.
Both of these artists represent an investment in the past and the future; Vernon chose to leverage his own in-demand status to boost a burgeoning folk traditionalist like Taylor, and Smith is an icon who arguably still hasn’t received her due thanks to the male-dominated rock scene of her time. Smith had never played Hollywood Bowl until last night, a historical wrong righted by a man who keeps thinking music might not be the home for him.
After three albums, all of which exist on completely different planes, it seems clear that home isn’t a place Justin Vernon will find, but one he will create. In fact, I’d argue that it’s his work that has made so many feel welcome again in an industry that can be alienating, particularly to those who are interested and invested in the way the folk tradition is changing in the modern era.
At his show on Sunday night, the building, magnificent swell of “715 – CR∑∑KS” created by his 20+ band crackled across Hollywood’s cloudy sky, but his solo rendition of “Skinny Love” was explosive in a different way. It was a reminder that moving forward never has to erase the past and that drastic change is usually the thing that makes the past more precious. That this singular folk song and the rest of his new sweeping, symbology-driven electronic palette aren’t at odds with one another, they can co-exist, they can be at home together.
It made me realize that in five years, the songs off 22, A Million will probably have worked their way into the fabric of my life the same way “Skinny Love” has. It made me hopeful that Vernon never does quit, and that he comes back each time with an album more meaningful than the last. It made me sit back, and treasure that performance of “Skinny Love,” to realize how fleeting it is to be a fan of a musical artist, how rare these huge shows can be, and how precious and intimate it is to be there and experience them. Most of all, it made me remember Vernon’s own internalization as he made this record: It might be over soon.
Hollywood Bowl Sunday, 10/24 setlist:
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”
10. “00000 Million”
11. “Minnesota, WI”
14. “Skinny Love”
16. “Creature Fear”