Spending any amount of time with the often precious singer-songwriter Justin Vernon — the central figure behind Bon Iver — is akin to hanging with J.D. Salinger, stuck in a Quonset hut, plotting his return to the Great American Novel. There’s a hallowed “genius at work” vibe happening, even when the output might be, on rare occasions, pedestrian.
This was very much the hermetic feel of Bon Iver opening its 2019 tour at Philadelphia’s The Met with two back-to-back shows on Thursday, and the promise of new material to follow. Here, men and women in checkered flannel listened devoutly as their high-pitched and warbling hero quietly intoned confessional tales of God, confusion and lost love while shushing away any outside noise or distraction.
Part of this devotional curiosity stems from Vernon’s backstory: how the earnest indie-folkie with the cryptic lyrics and oddly angled song titles became an overnight sensation in 2007 with the release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” and its tremulous tale of having spent three months isolated in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin to get to that woodsy, introspective recording. Even more extraordinary is how Vernon found a fan in Kanye West (who brought the folkie to sing on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Yeezus”), then molded Bon Iver into a soulful and sparse electro-folk project that grew noisier, tech-ier and even more elliptical by the time of 2016’s “22, A Million.”
It is this Bon Iver that sold out the cavernous Met, one whose wide stage was lit up with horizontal blades of strobing white light as Vernon and his fellow clad-in-black band (with two drummers, no less) tackled the songwriter’s windy brand of oblique, electronic soul-folk.
The ensemble’s haunting, sample-heavy arrangements of otherworldly voices popping up from nowhere (on, say, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T”) was reminiscent of David Sylvian’s wonky production work with Can’s Holger Czukay. Such tactile, crinkling sonics upped the creepiness levels on many a Bon Iver moment such as “715 – CREEKS,” and gave even the brightest melody (e.g. “Flume”) a sense of impending doom and nervous finality. The saxophone-filled “____45_____” was downright avant-garde in its spaciousness and Vernon’s stop-start approach to his lyrics about being alternately carved and caught in fire. The more adventurous aspects of Bon Iver’s tour-starting program were winning and glorious.
However, several of Bon Iver’s slow, sequenced songs — such as “8 (circle)” — held a different sort of creep factor as they were eerily reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s somnolent solo “Tunnel of Love”/”Streets of Philadelphia” period of 1987-1993. From their sheen down to their melody lines (even down to the pulse of “Heavenly Father”), Bon Iver had mirrored the Boss’ most elegantly sedate, synthetic and least provocative albums.
Boss blunder aside, Vernon maintained his stature as his own man — cryptic, yet contagiously hummable — as he used his lower vocal range on the synthetically breezy “Calgary,” re-appropriated his spare, acoustic guitar roots on the strummed “Skinny Love” and brought spacey technology to bear on ancient acoustic folk with moody brio.