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The American band Bon Iver performed at Manchester Arena on Friday 9th November. The music performed challenged my pre-conceptions of the band – the sound was surprisingly different to the polished acoustic vibes from the CDs. The impact of the orchestral elements in such a vast space produced a sound that clashed and sometimes screamed, but with fabulous effect. The instruments could not be calmed and softened as they can upon an audiotape, and so the audience was carried away with sheer relentless energy.
Hollering ‘how’re y’all’ in his American drawl, lead signer and founder of the band Justin Vernon commanded the stage. There was an ethereal quality to the set design – tendrils of white fabric cloth, entangling and entwining, fell downwards from the lighting rail, threatening to wind around the heads of the band. Upon this material were projected obscure natural images such as faint outlines of blowing leaves and opening flowers (Lana del Rey eat your heart out). These images developed and moved according to the rhythm of the music, as did the levels of billowing smoke, which swept across the stage floor. A light display was constant throughout the performance; make-fix cages which seemed to separate the ‘Ivers’ (the orchestral side of the band), had candelabra style lights attached which glittered and changed colour according to the mood of the track. The entire artistic set-up therefore, rendered Bon Iver an ethereal orchestra that seemed to float upon a cloud and transcend reality and normality.
The haunting nature of Bon Iver’s 2008 album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was somewhat replaced by an orchestral blues and jazz / punk-esque quality which featured some super-natural sounds. Within ‘Lisbon OH’, for example, there is a definite allusion to extra-terrestrial space sounds on the keyboard. The introduction to a more experimental side of the band results in a sound that is more bizarre, but more adventurous and therefore exciting. The band have become less folksy and more orchestral/electro punk/pop.
The new album ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’ dominated the concert – with the new tracks ‘Calgary’ and ‘Hinnom, TX’ carrying the audience through a mystery tour of ethereal strangeness. The tracks, with their strong backing-music and subsequently sometimes inaudible lyrics, were powerful and punchy; with clashing gratings of sound that were bizarre yet fantastic. However, my personal preference bent towards the tracks played from the 2008 album, which were played at the very end of the concert. ‘Skinny Love’ (though perhaps the most conventional and therefore the most ‘uncool’ to admit to prefer) is undoubtedly my favorite track. It is the most commercial track, but I believe that this is because it is accessible. The lyrics are riddles – they are extremely hard to pick apart, but there is a definite sense of heartbreak and nostalgia which I feel is extremely relatable; Bon Iver are not afraid to write about the flaws associated with relationships and therefore they are comfortingly realistic. The musings on blanched heartbreak have a ‘piquancy and serenity’ according to the Guardian.
The addition of the 8 piece orchestral band (a new addition following the 2008 album) definitely gives it some ‘welly’ – the sound resonates in a way that does not necessarily correspond with the intimacies and fragilities of Vernon’s more acoustic sounds. His voice was once a haunting ghostly whisper, but now it has evolved into a deeper, resonating maturity.
I was devastated to discover, however, that according to ‘NME’, lead signer Justin Vernon has said of the band; ‘I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed.’ ‘If’ leaves a tiny grain of hope that the band will continue to create beautiful transcendental sounds.