Friday, January 18, 2008

Masterful songs voice raw emotion

Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, spent last winter shut away in a cabin in rural Wisconsin, creating the kind of heart-wrenching, soul-baring songs you’d expect from such a winter of solitude. But the music of Bon Iver goes beyond any reasonable expectation to something truly fine and compelling. It was the chilling single “Skinny Love” that got my attention in the first place, and the song proved the perfect theme to many a melancholy fall-turning-to-winter evening walk.

Bon Iver is spending this winter touring with the songs he made last winter, backed up by Mike Noyce (guitar, bass) and Sean Carey (drums), both of whom also provide vocal harmony. I caught Bon Iver’s short and sweet set at Schubas’ Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 18, when a packed house was made privy to the songs on his upcoming album For Emma, Forever Ago, to be re-released February 19 on Jagjaguwar.

The trio’s casually composed demeanor eased us into “Flume,” a gently pleading minor song with an aching poignancy that set the mood for the rest of the show, and Vernon’s prayer-like howl of a falsetto continued into “Lump Sum” (a song that never fails to remind me of the theme from the 1971 children’s film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory -- the melodic hooks are quite similar).

Vernon wasn’t above some personal storytelling himself, reminiscing about the last time he’d been at Schubas and letting us know, with good-natured humor, that he was suffering from one very sore finger.

Pain seems like a key additive in the creation of any song as haunting as “Skinny Love,” and as the band plunged into the song’s steely opening chords, I half-closed my eyes and savored an almost religious moment. As the dim stagelight shone in my face and the song sank into the room, I could tell I was not the only one who’d been anticipating this tune.

“The Wolves” and “Blindsided” both offered the kind of lyrical contrasts that allow Vernon to step outside of his usual pace. “Blindsided” begins with a gentle pulse, but the two lines of its chorus, “Would you really rush out / Falling out,” bounce off of one another, with the first blending into the overall tone of the song and the second line providing a kind of high-pitched rally cry. “Wolves” offers a similar staccato-like chant in the lines “With the wild wolves around you / In the morning I’ll call you.”

With “Creature Fear” Bon Iver creates a multi-tiered song that runs the gamut from lulling vocals and chords that seem to echo from all directions, to a rousing chorus with the irresistibility of a pop song. “For Emma” is a lower-key number, but still surprisingly forward-driving -- it hit a balance of melancholy and fortitude as Vernon sang the lyrics, “Go find another lover.”

Despite the muted drama of these songs, the musicians of Bon Iver don’t take themselves too seriously –- there’s no cheese here, no cause for eye-rolling. Justin Vernon presents himself as some regular guy who just happens to write songs, and the mind-blowing rawness comes from a place of reserved honesty, not melodrama. - Cory Robertson