“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” – Maya Angelou
There is a sign hanging outside of the Oxbow Hotel in downtown Eau Claire that lists many of the attributes guests can enjoy when it opens: rooms, events, bikes, kayaks, music, art, food, drinks. In the Eau Claire I remembered, the only item on the list that factored into attracting people into the downtown was the drinks.
But the Oxbow is a testament to the fact that the town I recalled has been transformed, largely due to the influence of Justin Vernon, who was about to hold a press conference here for his band Bon Iver’s new forthcoming album, “22, A Million.”
The conference was being held in the Oxbow’s bar and live music space, The Lakely, a hip, modern, tasteful watering hole in a city whose bars had never been known for being hip, modern, or tasteful. There were fewer than 30 other journalists and radio people invited – or at least fewer than 30 had showed up for a last minute trip to Eau Claire over Labor Day weekend. I found out some of them had come from as far away as Japan, Denmark, and Australia to hear this highly anticipated album and hear the artist speak. And an effort had been made to balance the Pitchforks and Uncuts with people from small-town regional newspapers.
We had all received a packet of information on this new boutique hotel as well a beautifully produced lyric book and 4-page essay written by Trevor Hagen, one of the principal figures at Vernon’s recording studio, April Base. The essay explored the meaning of the album’s title: ’22’ is a number that has been important to Vernon his entire life, recurring randomly as a mile marker and a high school jersey, and also signifying the duality of 2 + 2; the Vernon who is vs. the perception of Vernon, the dichotomy within him as an artist and as a person who will serve as a theme on the new album. ‘A Million’ represents everyone else in the world, the endless sea of humanity that he can’t quite comprehend and the complicated relationship between ’22’ and ‘A Million’.
After a brief introduction, the album began to play from the bar’s speakers. The first seconds of the album in the song “22 (Over Soon)” feature a hypnotic loop of a human, or perhaps robot voice, with an additional sped-up loop of a single line: “it might be over soon”. The treated tape effect made the voice sound somewhat giddy and gleeful, as if to suggest the singer would be OK, and might even welcome it being over soon – was “it” the fame, adulation and success of the artist? Might this reflect Vernon’s own desire to keep his roots firmly planted in his hometown to build a more firm foundation, surrounded by family and friends? You get the sense he would be perfectly fine if it was all over soon.
As we listened, it became clear quickly that Bon Iver is exploring new terrain on the album. Samples loop in and out, voices are cut-and-pasted, and electronic beats, bearing jagged edges, anchor several of the songs. The overall effect is more experimental and more challenging than the previous albums.
However, the songs remain tied to that undeniable, emotive voice, that gorgeous falsetto that triggers an emotional response in many of us and has won him ‘A Million’ fans. One of the most striking moments of the album is when, perhaps for the first time ever, you hear Vernon sing in his natural voice, not treated with Autotune, not double-tracked, nor sung falsetto, and it feels like an accidental voyeuristic peek into the soul of this person. It is a moment that is over too soon.
This album might be Bon Iver’s “Pet Sounds,” as Vernon and company have wildly expanded the palate of instruments and sounds, including a new instrument that, we were told, samples other instruments in real time. Sampling is a tool often pulled from the trickbag on the record, adding snippets from source material as varied as The Supreme Jubilees and Mahalia Jackson, Sharon Van Etten and Paulo Nutini, and even a brief clip of Stevie Nick’s “Wild Heart” – the latter being uncredited on the album per Ms. Nick’s request, most likely due to a desire to not be questioned about the details, something Vernon understands well, I’m sure.
You can certainly hear all the turmoil and uncertainty that Vernon endured since the Grammy win for his previous album. “Bon Iver” catapulted him to a level of fame and adulation that he most certainly wasn’t prepared for and doesn’t seem to want, including a turn at being aped by the world’s biggest pop star, Justin Timberlake, in a skit on Saturday Night Live. You can hear pain in the record, but through this catharsis he finds an unmistakable beauty, if not an easily recognizable one.
I’m not sure if ’22, A Million’ will win over new fans without the warm glow of his debut, or the wide-angle panoramic pop sensibility of his follow up, ‘Bon Iver,’ but this may be his most challenging, most revealing, and ultimately most rewarding, release.
At the end of the record, the man of the hour finally revealed himself, somewhat unceremoniously, probably at his request. With an unkempt beard and what looked to be a Starbucks baseball cap pulled low on the brow, he could have sat unrecognized at the bar of any local saloon – except if it was a saloon in this town. Vernon mentioned being more nervous than he has been in a long time, but you couldn’t tell as he was jovial and thoughtful as he explained the concepts behind the album and took questions from the crowd. He said he was, “looking for different kinds of sparks” on this record, and wanted to achieve, “a broken down version of Bon Iver.” He conjured an apt Wisconsin metaphor when he compared the album to a “chainsaw sculpture” and even made an attempt to explain the numbers and strange song titles, arguing with his manager over the correct placements of parentheses and spellings.
I believe Vernon has greater sense of humor about all of this than he gets credit for. The Q&A period was revealing, but went a little long. Vernon remained gracious throughout. Once it was done, he was gone in a flash, forever the private person even when it’s in his own bar. As I was leaving, I couldn’t help but think of that dichotomy he touched upon with his new record. Here is a person who relishes his privacy and doesn’t seek fame or notoriety, yet he produces high-profile music festivals, builds new hotels, restaurants, music venues, and, in the process, becomes the face of an entire town. Our hometown.
They are lucky to have him. We all are.