Bon Iver turns inward for vulnerable set at Fox Theater

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Cameron Wittig and Crystal Quinn/Courtesy

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Bon Iver’s most affecting works are seated in single moments of time — the quiet, pained words exchanged in the confines of cities and car seats. To witness Bon Iver at the Fox Theater last Thursday — the last night of its sold-out, three-night residency — then, might be its inevitable conclusion.

The stage was backdropped by a hall of black mirrors, adorned in the same esoteric insignias that marked its latest record, 22, A Million. — its latest record. In the context of Bon Iver’s past work, it’s the band’s least accessible, and its two-hour-long set at the Fox reflected this incisively.

“It might be over soon,” the first line from “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” blared over the venue — a last call before the show even started. With the pitch-shifted tones set in the background, the thought, if nothing else, is a warning sign. On such a large scale, intimacy like this can only exist for so long before it has to end for the night.

At the center of the orchestra was Justin Vernon, the man whose ascendance to mass-culture familiarity — a long-standing working relationship with Kanye West, a couple of Grammy wins — led to a purposeful recoil from the spotlight.

A Million is Vernon’s most isolated work. The space he inhabits here, as opposed to his past work, might be lonelier: moments of vulnerability hidden in a deluge of manufactured reverb.

Accompanying him onstage was the Messina, a vocoder-like piece of software handcrafted in the process of making 22, A Million. But among the arrangement of session touring players, the Messina might have been the most key component of the show.

Cloaked in green light and surrounded by inscrutable text, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” shattered any residual image of Vernon as modern-day “Walden.” On the album, it’s so far-removed from his past work in its maximalist arrangement, and in person, it’s an affirmation of Justin Vernon’s status as a rock deity.

The military marching band drums lifted him upward, and coupled with the vocoder, his throaty voice felt alien.

But Vernon doesn’t want to be a deity. “Playing a bunch of concerts makes you think if I’m supposed to be doing this often,” Vernon said toward the end of his runthrough of tracks from 22, A Million.

On “715 – CRΣΣKS,” Vernon’s falsetto creaked and strained with the devastation of loss, the pretty layering of its spiritual predecessor “Woods”distorted to its ugliest limits.

By the time he reached “666 ʇ,” with pastoral, woodsy images run through a Gaussian blur filter as his background — the band’s melodies were as cryptic as the dizzying display behind it.

The effect was stark: if opening act Francis and the Lights’ dabbling in vocal pitching added textured harmonies to Vernon’s danceable electronic soul, his was an act of self solitude. His meditations were insular, but not exclusive; contemplative, but never cold. Sure, he’s tried to conceal and control his persona in the past — with a press conference in support of his new album — but there’s a corollary in that: When he comes out from the woodwork, he’s fully present.

Vernon concluded with “00000 Million,” the sad denouement of the album, with only Vernon and a white light illuminating him.

“I hope you got to suspend your day or week a little bit with us tonight,” he preceded his performance of the number.

And he could have ended on that note, effortlessly.

But it’s never that easy: The white light radiated as Bon Iver walked off the stage the first time, with a plinky, elevator-music synth line flowing through the stage. Vernon walked out of the divine interlude renewed, if more sardonic: He cracked references to comedian Mitch Hedberg in between tracks from his second album and referred to tender early cut “Beach Baby” as “a song about fucking on the beach.”

Once he walked back on the stage for the final encore — with Francis to perform “Friends” — silly white-boy dance moves and all, he really did suspend the day.

Joshua Bote is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @joshuaboat.