Bon Iver’s plaintive debut album was birthed in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods with only a Northern Exposure DVD box set for company.
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Five years later, Justin Vernon’s solo heartbreak vehicle has grown arms and legs and brass and woodwind sections and developed into 2012’s most unlikely arena rock act. Fortunately, Bon Iver attracted an enthusiastic but also mostly rapt listening audience on this occasion, the better to appreciate the subtle, creative arrangements for his mini-orchestra. And there was something immediately and undeniably affecting and effective about Vernon’s high lonesome tenor keening out across this vast, unromantic hall.
There is a warmth and gentleness to his cathartic songwriting which helped make the performance inclusive, if not exactly intimate. Skinny Love, performed here among a sea of pretty light bulbs, is one of the most satisfying examples of Bon Iver’s blend of strength and vulnerability, with band members forming a powerful backing chorus on its aching melody.
The elegant MOR of Calgary took Vernon even further away from his lo-fi beginnings, while the band were just as comfortable breezing along pleasingly or summoning up an epic maelstrom, like a stealth Arcade Fire. Vernon does not write anthems as such but he knows how to create a full, soaring sound which is distinct from the vacuous flailings of young stadium pretenders such as Mumford & Sons.
More importantly, when you strip away the bracing, pounding crescendos, there’s a palpable soul to his music.