At this point it’s strange to say that Bon Iver has become somewhat ubiquitous in the world of music. Brainchild Justin Vernon has worked with Kanye, consistently rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in music, and has done all this without ever charting on the Billboard 100 with his own band. The arc of his story, from revered folk outlier to scruffy indie innovator has required a leap of faith from his audience, and it’s obvious that many are willing to take it. This leap is one of pure feeling, bridging that emotional space between songwriter and listener with tumbles of incoherent allusions and harebrained imagery. It has, in short, been very effective.
Pitchfork was bought by Conde Nast, and now Bon Iver is pop music. The ascendance of both to the higher realms of culture signals a shift. Though some may disagree, this evolution into popularity isn’t all bad, as Bon Iver has taken his status as a once indie darling and expanded it into brand-new territory. There really are no artists at that level of popularity that are doing what he’s doing with music and sound, and it’s no wonder that Pitchfork is right there with him, celebrating his ascendancy. Their rise as a publication has been equally fascinating, as rooted in MFA wordplay, and has seemed as potent as the emotional fallout of “For Emma, Forever Ago.”
Bon Iver is still an anomaly, so unique that you could never mix up Vernon’s music with someone else’s. This individualistic fire is what led him to that cabin in Wisconsin to eat hunted meat and record his idiosyncratic first album. Now surrounded by like-minded artists and creators and at the head of his own collective – People – Vernon has thoroughly circumvented the enduring image of himself, that archetype of man triumphantly communing with nature and conquering his own demons in the process. He’s done this with his most triumphant and communal album yet, “i,i”, which spreads the net of Bon Iver wide so that others may join. At first this may seem dangerous, like it would threaten the band’s sound, but as it always does, it works.
There are wonders here. “U (Man Like)” is a revelation, a seeming indulgence in all the goofy, heart-on-your-sleeve influences that Vernon has hinted at over the years. The fact that the piano on the track was played by none other than Bruce Hornsby himself is a consummation of these influences, which guilelessly earmark adult contemporary artists such as Hornsby and Bonnie Raitt. It’s also his most communal track ever, which for an artist whose signature sound is his own multilayered voice, is quite the step in a new direction. It’s a brave, wonderfully exuberant song that includes vocals by Hornsby, Moses Sumney, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. It’s Vernon’s most vibrant and socially aware track, and comes off like a true anthem of the times. “How much caring is there of some American love / When there’s lovers sleeping on your streets?” Compared to most of his work, these lyrics are downright lucid.
The sidestepping of what is “cool” is part of what makes Bon Iver, and Justin Vernon himself, such an enigma. 2011’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” was a soft-rock masterpiece to the core, a collection of hearty brass lines, soaring melodies, and delicate undertones. Its runaway success crowned Bon Iver as the king of his own new and brave country, and he’s never looked back. Instead of playing it safe, he’s continued to innovate, a trend that continues to pay off time and time again.
His next album fiver years later, 2016’s “22, A Million,” was like a deconstruction of the world Vernon had created with “Bon Iver, Bon Iver.” Pastoral soundscapes were lambasted with glitchy electronics, layered vocal effects, and kaleidoscope worlds of autotune. It was also frustratingly abbreviated, as Vernon opted to cut short many of the album’s beautiful moments in favor of a constantly shifting tour de force of sound and emotion. As a complete work of art, this all makes sense. The album represented shifting and clashing forces, with moods and feelings cut short and left jagged for us to digest.
Vernon’s lyrics, though, have always teetered on the incomprehensible. By this fourth full-length album, it doesn’t seem to be about the actual words that Vernon is singing, but more about how they feel as sounds. You can imagine at times that you’re listening to a song in a foreign language, where the actual meaning of the lyrics plays second fiddle to the evocation and emotion of the sounds themselves.
The play with language continues with lines such as “Flash hope / pass the throw.” and “There’s no anorberic dream” Anorberic, as far as it seems, is a word made up by Vernon, a practice which he has cultivated over his albums. The more time you give to Bon Iver’s music, though, the more lines like these start to make some sort of primal sense. It’s not about rational thought, but about the emotion that it stirs somewhere inside of you.
As you let it play, you might feel the emotion tending toward, inexplicably, elements of peace and acceptance. In a way, “i,i” is a more pastoral record than “22, A Million,” which was colorful and dynamic as it cycled between acoustic and electronic elements. “I,i” is more consistently pretty. Whether it’s the indulgent atmospherics of the latter half of the album or the dynamic arrangement of the first few tracks, these elements seem to point toward a restful place. The only real misstep is “We,” the most inconsistent song on the record. A pretty, bouncy horn line can’t really recover the track from its awkward, hip-hop influenced beginning. It seems out of place, but if that is the album’s biggest flaw it isn’t much of a blunder.
Throughout “i,i”, Bon Iver seems to have mostly forgotten what an acoustic guitar is, even though songs like “Marion” briefly reminisce the heavy chords of “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Most of “i,i” centers around pulsing synth, angelic atmosphere, and the occasional appearance of high-pitched vocal fills. This abundance of synthetic ambience does have the possibly intended effect of making “Marion” seem that much more special. It’s probably the best song on the album, partly for the reserve that Vernon shows on its arrangement, allowing its gorgeous acoustic guitar lines to sparkle without much decoration. “Well, I thought that this was half a love” he repeats over and over, adding layers and emotion as the song rolls on. Except for a few utterances of “Follow to the rising sea,” there isn’t much more lyrically to the song. In true Bon Iver style, this magnifies the impact of every word and creates a maelstrom of emotion that threatens to swallow the listener.
“Sh’Diah” cultivates that slightly teetering, on the edge of breaking through to the other side, sort of feeling that Bon Iver introduced on “22, A Million.” The song title is an abbreviation of “Shittiest Day in American History,” referring to the Wednesday after Donald Trump’s election. The song doesn’t sound shitty, though. Instead we get something that resembles the pulse of morning light, of meditation on the edge of realization, as if Vernon was using the political event as fodder for enlightenment: “Will you adjust your scenery / Well you find time don’t you? /For the lord.”
“Well it’s all just scared of dying / But isn’t this a beach / And if I know thing at all / Is I cannot just be a peach.” So starts RABi, the final track on “i,i”. The guitar line behind Vernon’s voice seems to hop along, lending an energetic forward movement to what would be a slow track. “Sunlight feels good now, don’t it? / I don’t have a leaving plan” As the four album cycle of Bon Iver completes itself, it doesn’t seem like Vernon should. If anyone is here for the long haul, for his community and for music, it’s him.
Ultimately, this album is a satisfying culmination of the first decade of Bon Iver, and a truly exhilarating metamorphosis from solitary indie folk to communal art pop experimentation. Through this project, and through his commitment to surrounding himself with exceptional musicians and artists, Vernon has created something truly extraordinary for these confusing, strange, joyous, and monstrous times.