This is Axiom
Bon Iver, Hammersmith Apollo 24 October 2011
Expectations are sky-high for the first of two sold-out concerts on the sloping floors of the former Odeon.
‘We’re gonna dig deep in our discog,’ Justin Vernon deadpans in reference to his band Bon Iver having produced only two albums. However, Vernon’s work ethic has seen him collaborate with James Blake, St Vincent and Kanye West within the last three years, as well as producing a 4-track ep Blood Bank:
Well I met her by the blood bank
We were looking at the bags
There aren’t many performers whose work I love within minutes of hearing it, but Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, had that effect. It came with a compelling back-story. Composed and largely recorded in a remote cabin in Wisconsin owned by his father, it detailed a lost relationship and its aftermath. Lyrically, the songs were recorded with hummed melodies, and words later fitted to the sounds.
By setting it squarely as a break-up album, Vernon was allowed to run with all kinds of imagery without ever having to spell it out. Simultaneously, he put melody above lyrics. Take ‘Re: Stacks,’ which closes the album. For my money it is the best song since I don’t know, ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend,’ say. Unaccompanied but for his own guitar, his voice finds places new to the recorded version tonight.
I’ve seen it described as ‘oblique’ but this is only true of the chorus, which seems led by sound not meaning, but nevertheless is surely about carrying a burden:
On your back
with your racks
and the stacks
as your load
At tonight’s concert it is given an intro about holding down a job or not, and how it is better if you choose ‘not.’
The song builds with a repeated guitar shuffle that recalls both Paul Simon and early Dylan, but which I can’t actually locate.
The lines are severed down the middle as sung:
This my excavation, to—
day is Kumran
Everything that happens
is from now on
This is pouring rain,
this is paralysed.
The reference to Kumran, in whose caves the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, suggests these songs might serve as records. The song goes on to paint pictures of him gambling and drinking in frozen Wisconsin:
I keep throwing down two—
hundred at a time
It's hard to find it when you knew it
When your money’s gone
and you’re drunk as hell
After his break-up, the dissolution of his band, and a medical condition, he has described how he needed to be away from people, and ‘somewhere cold.’ This is touched on in the next line(s):
I’ve been twisting to the sun
I needed to replace
Since ‘replace’ is a transitive verb, we don’t usually see it unaccompanied like this. Here, he lifts it as if with tweezers (this makes self-evident sense when heard) and its isolated-ness at the end of the line emphasises the lack of a replacement.
This is followed by the best verse in living memory:
There’s a black crow sitting across from me,
his wiry legs are crossed.
He’s dangling my keys –
he even fakes a toss.
Whatever could it be
that has brought me to –
The final line of the song shines a torch up through the whole album:
Your love will be safe with me.
This to close an album about losing a partner. We carry the love for those we’ve lost with us. ‘Everything that happens is from now on,’ indeed. Their love will endure through music, like love for a woman or man might be preserved in an Elizabethan sonnet.
Vernon’s economy is also evident in the opening line of ‘Flume,’ the album’s first song:
I am my mother’s only son
Does that mean having one messed-up son is enough for anyone, and she doesn’t need another? Or that knowing this is enough to make him take care of himself, make something of himself, not do anything stupid?
If anything, with his second album Vernon’s lyrics have become more oblique. Each song is named after a place it ‘represents.’
Opening song ‘Perth’ begins:
I’m tearing up, acrost your face
move dust through the light
to fide your name
it’s something fane
this is not a place
not yet awake, I’m raised of make
Occasionally the lyrics slip into focus, such as ‘Towers’:
When you’re up for it and not yet grown
and the beautiful, out of nowhere
This is axiom!
Elsewhere, lines seem chosen for sound as much as for meaning. This has the positive effect of enabling you to listen to them as you work, as mood pieces.
Naysayers of his acclaimed debut For Emma, Forever Ago pointed to its apparently artless, principally-acoustic, simplicity. However, as an astute review of his debut by Pitchfork mentioned, when the title track filled with horns and drums the song somehow became more focussed and uncluttered. The second album is much more intricate. The tug of the guitar in the opening ‘Perth’, the moment when the instruments and voices fall away to reveal an urgent but steady arpeggio in ‘Minnesota, WI’ are gasp-out-loud beautiful. The album is reminiscent of the sound Talk Talk achieved on their masterpiece ‘Spirit of Eden.’ Towards the end, the album becomes a little more synth-laden (‘Bruce Hornsby and the Range’ as some have dubbed it).
Mid-way through her opening set, Kathleen Edwards told the audience, ‘I’ve bad news. Your expectations of Bon Iver are way too low.’
If the test of a true poet – apart from being able to rhyme ‘orange’ – is that you can tell authorship from one line taken at random, then the test of a musician must be the first note. As Vernon comes onstage at pace, fixes some levels, pulls on a guitar, and tugs himself into the opening riff of ‘Perth,’ it is true as you could hope.
Tonight’s 9-piece band take songs which are spare in their album versions without ever converting them into a foot to the ground stomp. Songs breathe as organic wholes, including over a minute of noodling before the chorus of single ‘Holocene’ comes in again. The stops of an unsounded horn provide syncopation during one song. You can see why Vernon might have been drawn to support Kathleen Edwards’ three-piece drumless performance.
Apparently on the second night, the audience was so loud she was drowned out, and left the stage mid-song. Bon Iver consequently ran through the set pretty carelessly by all accounts. This makes little sense to me. Although chronologically later, the audience on the second date had bought the tickets first, before an additional show the previous night was announced, so they were presumably bigger fans. In which case you’d think they’d be interested in hearing Kathleen Edwards.
What a difference a day makes! Was it that we are cold-hearted Brits, or that we were attentive to every sound, that on Sunday we stood motionless the whole concert? I doubt I would have danced or sung along to Pet Sounds era Beach Boys either.
‘Skinny Love’ encores, its ‘My my my my my’ lyric offering the hook of the evening. We were asked to sing the line ‘What might have been lost,’ during ‘The Wolves (act I and II)’. That qualified future perfect tense – ‘what might have been’ – coupled with a negative verb – ‘lost’ (a similar trick is evident in the title of the first album) – is typical of the emotional space of Vernon’s songs.
Before he makes his exit, he thanks the audience for their support, sincerely. Before the band took the stage, Huey Lewis and The News’s Stuck With You played over the speakers. The point? Be yourself, have unashamed enthusiasm. In that context it sounded joyous.
In a way I can’t quite define, but which seems linked to his lack of image, front and weight, he sidesteps any vanity, in the way that Tintin, being a kind of vacuum, allows you to project yourself onto him. Only, in concert, it is the most amazing musical shapes that are projected.