Listening to Justin Vernon cry on the Song Exploder podcast induced a familiar feeling. Vernon had been talking about his time at Sonic Ranch studio recording the song “Holyfields,” from the latest album by his band Bon Iver i,i.
Well, Sonic Ranch is a studio, but it’s really more of a resort. Founded by proprietor Tony Rancich on his family’s expansive pecan farm in Tornillo, Texas, Sonic Ranch is a destination for moneyed indie rockers looking for a quiet place to create and be taken care of. Several BNM’s have been made there; it has its own pool.
“Texas is a heavy vibe right now,” actor, producer, and Bon Iver collaborator Chris Messina said on Song Exploder, remembering their time there. Vernon agreed, his voice cracking: “Yeah,” and then choked out a few seconds of sobs. Here comes that feeling again, that cocktail of feelings: impatience, sympathy, cringe. I want to say, out loud, through the Apple Podcasts app, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this. I couldn’t think of anything else but the time a white college friend tearfully admitted that her family’s wealth came from an ancestor buying up drilling rights in the southwest.
Texas had been a “heavy vibe” at the time, presumably, because Tornillo was the site of the “tent city” detention camp that, at its peak around the time of the recording of i,i, held around 2,800 children.
Around the same time, Bon Iver began collaborating with Minnesota's TU Dance, which was cofounded by Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, both Black veterans of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, to present Come Through, a contemporary dance performance—mixing modern dance, hip hop, and ballet among other movement styles—alongside a live Bon Iver set. With Come Through, Vernon chooses to engage directly, for the first time in his career and with unfortunately haphazard treatment, with images and media like a hoodie superimposed over the word "breathe," and audio from a speech by Viola Davis about Jim Crow racism given at the Women’s March.
Over the past half-decade, a couple of things have complicated Vernon’s initial presentation as a lovelorn Wisconsinite recluse. Firstly, wild success made him into a reluctant leader of the socioeconomic phenomenon known as “indie rock.” Secondly, governmental turmoil, along with a seismic social shift, set in, and it has become trendy, nearly compulsory, for artists to have a political presentation—particularly for extraordinarily wealthy white musicians operating in a space as racially fraught as “indie rock.” As surely as Vernon wanted to shroud his work in mystery and difficulty, he also needed to be understood as an artist active in the political moment, and together these forces made the production of a Bon Iver concert that is “about race” an inevitability.
So, what’s an indie rocker to do with his white guilt? Well, in Flatbush, Brooklyn this past winter, Bon Iver and TU Dance presented Come Through. The dancers of TU Dance took the stage costumed in plain garments with muted colors. Lit harshly in overwhelming blues and whites, with a towering digital art projection beaming over their features, each member of the diverse troupe was reduced to an earth-toned mass, racialized without specificity, a “brown body.” As Bon Iver played their b-sides, these earthen beings darted around and pulsated when the music was fierce. This was Bon Iver though, soft and spacious, so mostly they settled for a gentle sway or a forlorn look.
From this muddle, though, some of Come Through’s most thrilling moments emerged. i,i’s “Marion,” a cryptic love song cooed over a rudimentary acoustic guitar riff became “1867,” a duet featuring dancers Taylor Collier and Jacob Lewis, between whom support is offered, accepted, and given—at one point, Lewis walks forward with Collier’s prostrate body on his back. In another standout, a Come Through original cloyingly titled “Jelmore/Takes A Village,” a single dancer ran out and improvised a repetitive shimmy, and then, one by one, a crowd stumbled upon them, baffled and began to imitate until they all shimmied together to a jumble of samples. Almost everywhere else, though, any message offered in Come Through is lost under a collage of gestures and signifiers.
Justin Vernon's tendency to obscure himself is legendary. Even in his earliest work, as Bon Iver and before, he muttered and slurred, confounding what might have once been expected from a folk singer by trading concrete language for lyrical smears. And then, after achieving such fame that he was portrayed by Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live, Vernon's rejoinder was to evaporate into a four-year hiatus, reemerging with a baffling and great electronic album in 2016 that chopped and screwed layered harmonies into morsels.
But does he know what he’s doing? That's a question that—when an artist has a less-than-straightforward relationship with meaning—can often be beside the point. When you become aware that you're at a Bon Iver show that is—at least partially—about racism, it suddenly becomes urgent.
Vernon requested that photographers assigned the event not feature his face in their pictures, presumably to better foreground the work of the dancers, but this act of bashfulness is also convenient for Vernon, allowing him to elide responsibility for a confused product by performing passivity. Perhaps if he felt he had more on the line, he would have tried harder. As it stands, Bon Iver has top billing, and the images and choreography all are set to Vernon’s music. It's difficult, then, not to read Come Through’s perfunctory commentary as an extension of his guttural and reflexive style, so beguiling in his music, and so disappointing here.
I don’t mean to suggest that white people shouldn’t feel guilty; they certainly should. And I understand why white artists want to make things like this, and why white audiences want to see things like this. But I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do with things like this. What is the non-white audience to do when offered a white artist’s clumsy, inarticulate guilt tacked carelessly onto the work of Black choreographers? Just as the production of a Bon Iver race show felt inevitable, so too did the placement of the burden onto the audience—it feels compulsory to acknowledge the artist’s good intentions in this collaboration, to note that the show is “well-meaning.” Without anything in particular to say about race, in the end, Come Through simply encourages its audience to reward it for even trying.