Friday night, Bon Iver performed their new album, 22, A Million, at Eaux Claires, the hometown festival created and curated by bandleader Justin Vernon. Million is a lovely, weird, unpredictable record, combining Vernon’s characteristic multilayered songwriting with an ever-grander embrace of electronics and an occasional blast of noise. Its entrance into the world felt suitably ceremonious, if limited in scope: Two new songs are now available on streaming services, but the album proper isn’t expected until September 30. Set to be released on Jagjaguwar, 22, A Million will be Bon Iver’s first new music since 2011’s Bon Iver.
Vernon remained front and center throughout the live debut, sometimes accompanied by only a couple of band members, other times surrounded by a tight arc of musicians at music stands. (At one point, he introduced his backing band as “the Sad Sax of S**t.”) With each new song, attendees who downloaded the festival’s app received bizarre strings of characters as notifications: “22 (OVER S??N),” “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?,” “715 – CR??KS.” These, it quickly became clear, are titles of the new songs.
“I just think maybe I ran my course with being able to come up with new moments on the guitar,” Vernon told Grantland last year, ahead of the inaugural Eaux Claires festival. “I think the thing I’m working with the most is the OP-1. It’s a sampler-based synthesizer, and I honestly think it’s the most important instrument that’s come into my life since I first picked up a guitar when I was 12 years old.” A year later, the synthesizer’s continuing influence can’t be overstated: Million is built and re-built from samples and loops in a manner that recalls Vernon’s work with one of his non-Bon Iver projects, Volcano Choir.
As festival curator, Vernon presumably chose his own set time, and his decision reflects the company in which he perceives his latest work. Last night’s headlining performance followed sets by veteran keyboard jammers Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers and English downtempo producer James Blake. Later, after Bon Iver’s set concluded, Hornsby joined on piano for a near-unrecognizable version of the Bon Iver standout “Beth/Rest.” Vernon and Blake’s recent collaboration on the latter’s newest album, “I Need a Forest Fire,” didn’t make an appearance at Eaux Claires, but Blake acknowledged his friend as the inspiration for his 2011 song “Lindisfarne I.”
Kanye West, meanwhile, has long been a big Bon Iver fan, and his corresponding influence on Vernon seems more apparent than ever before, particularly in the echoing crunch of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ? ?.” As odd as it can be to hear lyrics about creeks and reeds through a thicket of Auto-Tune, 22, A Million sounded crisp: Eaux Claires’ organizers clearly prioritize audio quality, and perhaps it’s only to be expected that Bon Iver’s music should sound better near a forest beside a river in northwestern Wisconsin.