When Justin Vernon sings “I” or “my” he touches his chest with his hand, softly but purposefully. It’s the gesture of someone fully meaning what he says, no artifice, no distraction. He often has his eyes closed on stage. He collapses into his keys and synthesizer or prowls over it, long arms draped, leaning into each note. He leans into the mic for primal wails, too, his face melting into a grimace. His body hums when the other musicians take over. He’s an artist that feels every sound, from the frothy saxophone puffs of “__45__” to the orchestral clamor of “Creature Fear.”
Justin Vernon brought his band Bon Iver to Pioneer Works, a large stone building in Red Hook, for a 5-day residency during his 10-day run in New York. On Tuesday, Vernon encouraged the audience to look around at the large stone walls with rain slashing outside tall windows. Artist lofts with curtains were slung under the roof. He had visited the place years ago and had vowed that the next time around he would try to stay as long as humanly possible. It was soon to be “the epicenter” he told the crowd, which breathlessly snapped up $75 tickets as soon as they were announced.
Pioneer Works is special because it’s part of a movement that’s always been around — a movement that prizes togetherness and unity. This idea of looking out for each other, trusting in and promoting goodness, and intensely collaborating to discover beauty pervades all of what Vernon does. It culminates each year in his Eaux Claires festival, when he hand selects dozens of kindred spirits for a rigorously non-commercialized, post-capitalist weekend of music and togetherness.
In a sense, this radical empathy has always been with Vernon, even with that mythical figure people are obsessed with — forlorn and alone in a wintry cabin, suffering from heartbreak and illness, wailing songs that are somehow cryptic and instantly knowable. That conception of Vernon has evolved a lot over the years, as he rose from obscurity in the midwest to become Kanye’s “favorite living artist.” And for acolytes of his first two albums, his latest album 22, a Million must have been slightly puzzling. Many fans didn’t have a broad enough conception of who Vernon is as an artist, a person intensely concerned with exploring new sounds and what it means to be a human.
At first, his latest album didn’t seem to fit with his earlier work. I kept reading about how it was “post-human,” entering the sonic territory of AI, when robots begin to craft what we hear on Spotify. The strange song titles seemed to confirm this. And I absorbed that idea — after all, his voice is heavily computerized throughout the album. Still, 22, a Million deals with such huge themes and seems to defy the term post-human. But seeing the new album performed, I realized I hadn’t understood the term broadly enough. The album is post-human, but in the sense that it’s the beauty achieved when human ingenuity is enhanced. The human isn’t erased in this world, it’s transcended. It’s not a competition with computers or AI, it’s a graceful collaboration.
On Tuesday, Bon Iver mostly played 22, a Million, and it was an eminently human performance. Flanked by a full brass section, three or four back-up vocalists, drums, bass, and keys, Bon Iver benevolently loomed in the center of the stage. He spoke about working to end domestic abuse with his gender equality campaign “2 A Billion” and encouraged people to donate to the non-profits he brought along. He yelled at some dude for being an asshole, but then apologized later in the show for snapping, noting that the anger was fleeting, just an ordinary human emotion to be left behind.
Vernon brought out a few guitars to play some of his earlier classics, but it was the new album’s night, a true masterpiece, a heart-rending journey into dread, hope, calm, dismay, all the dizzying emotions that make life a glorious journey that can only be fully expressed through art.
At the end, he brought out Francis and the Lights for “Friends.” Vernon accidentally introduced him as “Francis Stairwell,” a slip of the mind because Francis was waiting on the stairs.
The two shared the vocals and Francis started hopping around. Then, the two joined at the center of the stage to do the choreographed dance from the music video. The two nailed the moves, and the audience loved it, smiles plastered on everyone’s faces, cheering as loud as possible, seeing two friends trying hard to do their thing, and being perfectly human each step of the way.