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16th October 2017

An Ode to Bon Iver: 22, A Million

I left my heart in Blackpool Opera House

I cried when tickets for the 22, A Million album tour sold out.

As an angsty, anxiety-filled adolescent, it was Bon Iver that nurtured me through my uncertain early teenage years. Those first, stripped bare tracks from For Emma, Forever Ago pacified me on early morning drives to school, and the subtle electronic elements of tracks like ‘Holocene’ had the ability to force emotions into me when it felt like I’d forgotten how to feel (thank-you, teenage hormones).

So, colour me happy when I hear that Bon Iver cancelled the European part of their tour due to “personal reasons.” Don’t get me wrong, it was probably something difficult or devastating and I felt sorry for whichever band member was effected and all — but it suddenly felt like I had magic powers. Out of sheer force of will, I had manifested Bon Iver tickets into availability. So, the night before my 19th, I nabbed myself some. Happy birthday me.

I first heard Bon Iver at Latitude Festival in 2012. It was my second festival, after Leeds fest 2011, which was just as cold and damp. As I sat, 14 years old, in shorts, a wet jumper and a not-so-waterproof waterproof, struggling to read my kindle as the day got darker, you can probably guess that I wasn’t a very happy camper. But as the ethereal vocal harmonies at the beginning of ‘Perth’ sailed into my earlobes, I distinctly remember looking up. The blend and timbre of those voices, reminiscent of the kind of echoes you hear in swimming baths, transported me instantly to a state of calm bliss.

While the sound of 22, A Million is radically different, the beguiling presence of Bon Iver is just as compelling as ever. In contrast to his early more acoustic works, such as the infamous ‘Skinny Love’, the new album features sounds described by the Guardian’s Kitty Empire as “hyper-modern balladeering.” The captivating vocoder isn’t exactly the background track for your next dinner party. Rather, balladeering in it’s true, poetic sense; it demands to be listened to, it deserves to be deciphered. When asked about the sonic makeover at the album’s press conference, Justin Vernon, the group’s front man, explained his search for new “sparks”; and he was successful. 22, A Million, with its audio distortions, indeed crackles with excitement and novelty — an excitement which couldn’t translate better to stage.

Bon Iver chose the somewhat surprising venue of the Opera House at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens for their show in northern England. The hall itself, plastered in a pastel-hued rainbows, not unlike the sampled snippets in his album, is just the kind of secret gem you’d expect Vernon to pick out. The stage was set on three raised circles, nothing special, until the band walked on, when bulbs around their bases began to glow, the tolling loop of opening track ’22 (OVER S∞∞N’)’ chiming out the speakers. The fresh and regenerative sound was a theme for the entirety of the concert, where no track was performed as you might have heard on the album. Take the layered saxophones of ‘8 (circle)’ for example; pared down for stage and only one saxophone available, each part was sung vocally by the band members. Even the old greats like ‘Blood Bank’ were transformed anew with a gritty electric guitar backing. Bon Iver’s sound was evolving further, and watching it live was breathtaking.

The concert closed with what Vernon described as “the best song ever written”: ‘A Song for You by Donny Hathaway’, just Vernon and keys. Since the gig, it feels like I’ve been floating around in a strange, sad state of transgression, something I was struggling to explain until my dad, or musical dietician, phoned and described it perfectly: “I miss being in his aura.” Bon Iver, live, feels like having a spell cast on you, and until it wears off, reality seems suspended. A small price to pay for one of the most profound musical experiences of my life.

Tickets for the London dates in late February are on sale now. I’ve already got mine.

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