The Wisconsin art-folk project Bon Iver kicked off a multi-night stand Wednesday at Radio City, and songwriter/band leader Justin Vernon rose to the occasion with his best stage banter he could be bothered with.
One song, he explained, was about those couches we all have in college that are not really couches but are instead made "out of disease." Another song was about that couch getting taken to the curb. Later, a song was introduced with "this is about when bad s*** happens…and then you get over it later. Do we have any Daoists in the audience?"
This was all preferable to him just saying, "This is another song about a girl that dumped me."
"Calgary" is very likely the best song Vernon has ever written, and at Radio City Wednesday his band did it justice, with an expansive take that pushed the New Romantic peaks higher and then even higher. But as powerful as it sounded and as capably as the various horn players and multi-instrumentalists blended into one crescendo, it is still impossible not to roll your eyes when someone is playing triangle in what is, on some level, a rock band.
At the risk of being an armchair psychologist, the gist of Bon Iver's self-titled second album seemed to be that Vernon felt a bit self-conscious about the whole "rustic guy with a guitar" stereotype, and sought to get away from it by piling on as much sonic as possible. Some of those layers echoed Brian Eno or Sigur Ros. Some of those filigrees brought to mind Radiohead making relaxation tapes for a high-end, environmentally friendly health spa. Vernon's eight-person backing band managed to recreate all the lush layering, but shone brightest during an unhinged, Arcade Fire by way of Neil Young take on the deep cut, "Blood Bank," which featured dual pounding drums, triple guitar shredding and enough horn blaring to subdue several thousand people wishing he would play something more familiar. If Vernon is serious about not getting labeled as a mellow folk dude, this would be a good direction for him to take the next album.
Bon Iver capped off the the main set with "Beth/Rest," without question the worst song he's done in several years. My wife described it as "like Phil Collins, but with auto-tune." I continue to believe that Vernon only made this song (or at least only added the layers of 80's inspirational ballad keyboards and vocal filters set to Christopher Cross) to prove that he has so thoroughly conquered the smart and sensitive music listener community that he could get away with anything he wanted. To be fair, the live version has a bit more oomph in some of the "In The Air Tonight"-style drum breaks, but I'm not I would call that an improvement.
Vernon did "re: Stacks" with just a guitar. Based on the audience's (justifiable) ecstatic reaction, a large portion of his fan base would be just as happy if he just did the "sad guy with an acoustic guitar" thing full-time. It's to his credit that Vernon seems committed to not just giving people what they expect. It takes courage to go for the "what people don't know they want" route, and if that road means occasional detours in to New Age Ave, it's a small cost.