Justin Vernon, Backwards Superstar

To the fans of Bon Iver: the end is just the beginning.When news broke that Justin Vernon was taking an indefinite hiatus from his Bon Iver project, the fact that he had already been working with another band took a backseat to the glory of grief. We get it. It’s more exciting to lament the end of a band than celebrate their next step. I remember when MJ died—people took to the streets screaming, playing “Billie Jean” out of store windows, convulsing on the sidewalks. When Vernon made his announcement, his fans had an excuse to put For Emma, Forever Ago on an endless loop and weep into the “Bon Iver” embroidered drug rug they bought right at the moment “Skinny Love” was peaking in Cleveland back in ’09.

Mr. Vernon, the nation’s go-to source on flannel and feelings, is only molting. He’s shedding one skin in favor of another, removing himself from the spotlight to focus on a collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees. Volcano Choir‘s main shortcoming up until this point is that they’re not called Bon Iver. Now that Mr. Vernon has made it his primary musical project, however, Volcano Choir is suddenly the subject of full-concert videos like this one, shot at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. The show is a swirling collage of colors despite the fact the backdrop never moves. The sounds and lights do more than a shifting background ever could, creating an atmosphere that is both intimate and organic. This is helped in no small part by the fact the backdrop was made from recycled materials taken from Vernon’s barn.

But musical theater aside, stepping away from Bon Iver was an unprecedented move by Vernon. When’s the last time we saw someone take a step away from center stage at the height of their fame? He’s still singing and playing a central role in Volcano Choir, but Vernon is actually choosing collaboration over control. We’ve seen the move in reverse hundreds of times (Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Justin Timberlake, Jack White), but finding this sort of cohesion after being the frontman is incredibly rare. It’s also a fantastic message to send to the rest of the industry: you can be a successful creative without prostituting your name and face. By disappearing back into the web of a group, Vernon’s ensuring what he cares about (the music) will stay at the forefront of the discussion rather than the endless flannel jokes these damn music bloggers can’t help but make.

Vernon’s full integration into the band after all the spotlights and Grammys raises an interesting question: could this happen in any other genre?

Vernon gave an interview with two Volcano Choir bandmates (guitarist Chris Rosenau and keyboardist Tom Wincek) soon after the show and talked about live performance and their history together. From the interview’s outset, it’s clear that this is a group formed by way of mutual admiration. Vernon says his Volcano Choir bandmates are people “who continue to be extremely deep sources of inspiration for me, as a living person, artist, whatever. And so when we come into this band, and we get to spend time together, there’s a deep friendship there. There’s a deep sense of respect, and there’s a deep sense of gratitude to just be able to share the gifts that these guys have to give to the band.”

Volcano Choir’s Repave was released last month to general critical acclaim. The band is leaving for a European tour later this year. They are, by all accounts, a success. But Vernon’s full integration into the band after all the spotlights and Grammys raises an interesting question: could this happen in any other genre? Or is the ambiguous form of experimental rock just the right cocktail of sound to embrace and envelop a star and turn him back into one piece of the larger picture?

IF THE NEW VOLCANO CHOIR ALBUM WAS BY BON IVER, EVERYONE WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT HOW GOOD IT IS