The opening night of his London residency this week proved the impact Justin Vernon’s career has had on countless imitators
It was just meant to be an innocent getaway. Long before such things became cliché – before Into The Wild posters papered every budding adventurer’s uni dorm, and ‘wanderlust’ became everyone’s word of the month – Justin Vernon packed his bags and went on a woodland jolly, camping out in the wilderness to get away from the stress of a break-up, and writing and recording his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in the process. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times over; one that’s become both indie folklore and cringey ‘inspo’ for Justin Timberlake’s latest bout of country-tinged authenticity. But it undoubtedly sparked a wave of copycat creators, shipping themselves off to cabins in woods in an attempt to capture the intimacy and magic that Bon Iver seemed to call upon effortlessly.
As his eight-night London residency at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo kicked off this week, Vernon seemed split between his past and present selves. A For Emma anniversary show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last weekend had seen him return to the locale that inspired that iconic debut, and drummed up hype for a full-album run-through of that debut 11 years on as he hit British shores. Instead, Vernon and his ever-expanding band focussed their attentions on the future-facing sounds of latest album 22, A Million, opening the show with a full rendition of that 2016 masterpiece.
Stood on a pulpit at the front of the stage, Vernon delivered the emotionally fraught, sonically challenging sounds of 22, A Million with barely a pause for breath. Running through the likes of 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and 33 “GOD” with a frantic urgency atop that religious platform, he espoused his position as the silent, reclusive icon of earnest indie, all while pointing to its future. He didn’t completely deny his audience his voice though – towards the end of the full-album opening set, he lent his support to the Rosa Fund For Women and Girls, who were seen collecting in the foyer all night. “The only ‘tude we have is gratitude,” he smiled, in a rare break from the emotional severity of his music.
While the world still grapples with 22, A Million’s otherwordly arrangements (no record since has come close to its complexities, though you can hear its influence in the slow-burning, ever-shifting tectonics of new acts like Westerman), Vernon clearly remains in complete control, each thread of the record’s complex tapestry pulled in different directions as he reimagines tracks seemingly on the fly. Framed by columns of light and ghostly white strips of fabric, it was a hypnotic run-through of an album that seems set to pave the way for pop for at least another decade.
It was what came after a brief, 22-minute intermission that really captured Bon’s spirit, though. A Bon Iver, Bon Iver-heavy second set found favour with an audience clearly pining for the more folksy sound Vernon made his name on, and showcased the pop heart at the core of his songwriting. Whether Bon Iver manifests itself in woodland folk or alien sonics, he captures the emotional potency of music’s all-time greats – a thrashing Blood Bank in particular pitched Vernon as Springsteen with a synthesiser. By the time a haunting For Emma rolls around – a brief nod to that ever-looming anniversary – and oft-covered ‘hit’ Skinny Love gets sidelined, it’s clear that no matter the emotional devastation at the heart of his work, Vernon remains in complete control. He’s an artist that’s long since evolved beyond the ever-present spectre of both Skinny Love’s cultural prevalence and that debut album’s context; one that deserves his place as one of modern music’s most enchanting figures, up there with the Oceans and Wests of the world.
“This is the easiest fucking job,” Vernon laughs halfway through the performance, “You basically get adored, and then you turn to mush for a while.” Hammersmith echoes with roars and applause for the 21st time this evening, and that adoration shows no sign of slowing as he surges towards another ten years at the forefront of pop and indie innovation – cabin fever and Skinny Love be damned.