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.