Bon Iver began as an exercise in seclusion, the fruit of singer-songwriter Justin Vernon’s retreat to his family’s hunting cabin in northwestern Wisconsin in the wake of the breakup of DeYarmond Edison (a band that took its name from Vernon’s own unique middle names), a split with his girlfriend, and a protracted illness. Bon Iver’s debut, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), was stark, breathtaking, and wounded, the sound of a man taking inventory of his choices and plotting a path forward. The story of the band’s trek from the solitude of For Emma to the rustic expanses of 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver to the jarring electronics of 2016’s 22, A Million and the nervy maximalism of this summer’s new i,i is as much a story of personal growth as of piecing together a pliable band and giving it room to work. What took root in a cabin in the woods has since broken through pop and experimental music’s topsoil as Vernon ventured out into rock, folk, synth-pop, and hip-hop circles, elevating the craft of his collaborators and bringing ideas and players back into the fold for his flagship.
Vernon’s music doesn’t behave like pop — or at least not like any version of it since Todd Rundgren got serious about electronics in the ’70s or since that stretch in the late ’80s when Bruce Hornsby oscillated between the Range and the Grateful Dead. (Vernon’s ability to keep the attention of both pop and rap fans as well as indie-beard bros is at least as unlikely as Rundgren’s producing for Grand Funk Railroad and Hall & Oates the same year he fronted the synth-heavy progressive project Utopia, or as Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” touching new ears after being sampled in 2pac’s “Changes” over a decade after it hit No. 1.) By rejecting the prevailing sounds of the era, Vernon came to acquire a certain unexpected hand in steering them, as A-list stars with good taste and extraordinary means began to look outside their respective fields for session players and expand the reach of their hits by breaking new ground.
A decade ago, Vernon’s auto-tuned choral exercise “Woods” fertilized Kanye West’s “Lost in the World.” From there, Travis Scott, James Blake, Vince Staples, Eminem, Chance the Rapper, and many others came calling. Conversely, 22, A Million’s use of drums, synths, and samples (see the heartbreaking slice of Mahalia Jackson vocals that peppers the opener, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”; the Stevie Nicks deconstruction in “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”; or the hip-hop drum patterns in the middle of “33 ‘GOD’”) felt like ideas Vernon had brought back home from his travels — as much as any of the crackling noise, lush instrumentation, and ambient keyboard textures of Bon Iver, Bon Iver can be sourced to the frontman’s tenure alongside members of the midwestern hip-hop collective Doomtree and the synth-pop group Poliça in the supergroup Gayngs, or to Volcano Choir, the team-up with the Milwaukee experimental group Collections of Colonies of Bees, which yielded 2009’s offbeat, upbeat Unmap and 2013’s rootsy, stately Repave.
Bon Iver grows as Vernon’s connections do, allowing a performer who is leery of the fame machine (in part due to anxiety) to step back and democratize the voice of his group. Together, they’re creating a musical language that’s left of center but shy of inscrutability. They’re reliable but not predictable. The distance Bon Iver covers from one album to the next recalls the journey of Beck in the ’90s, both for the bold nerve of mixing folk sounds with hip-hop production values and for the sense that each new album is the culmination of all the incremental moves before it. You don’t get the lush, louche funk and laconic country sounds of Beck’s 1999 Midnite Vultures without passing through Mellow Gold’s country-rap convergence, Odelay’s big beat foundation, and the time-traveling genre exercises of Mutations. Similarly, i,i feels like the end of a world-building exercise that Emma kicked off. Blasts of strings, horns, pianos, and voices compete with synthetic keys, programmed drums, and robotic, manipulated vocals. Like a feisty young nation-state, this music balances a love of nature with the necessity of industrialization. It makes good use of machines, but it is bleak and even paranoid about where our reliance on them is headed.
As far as any Justin Vernon lyric sheet can be surmised to have a singular meaning, i,i is an album about the daily dread of watching the world stumble into gridlock over solvable issues. The woeful “Sh’Diah,” or “Shittiest Day in American History,” recalls the morning after Election Day 2016, when many Americans were confronted with the reality that not everyone shares the dream of inclusiveness the union was built on. “Hey, Ma” hits at people hoarding wealth and resources while others starve: “Full time you talk your money up / While it’s living in a coal mine / Tall time to call your ma.” “U (Man Like)” warns that the union is only as stable as its most impoverished citizens and imagines a future when our misdoings catch up with us. (“So, Cerberus, ride / Bring those dead alive / Like Pirate Jenny on the Black Freighter.”) “Marion” frets over “the rising sea,” while “Naeem” evokes the era’s daily horror in one line: “I can hear crying.”
Like the political ’80s album rock his music evokes at its most mannered and folksy, Vernon is after more than just to scare us. He’s trying to move people to action, to name our troubles and overcome them. This music is a call to rectify a great disorder, just like Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” The new album’s cautionary lyrics, pointed emphasis on teamwork, and collaborations with a prodigious chorus of outside voices and instrumentalists — the guest list includes Hornsby, Francis Starlite, James Blake, Velvet Negroni, members of Wye Oak and the National, DeYarmond Edison alums, and many more — are a stunning reversal for a project that began as a work of hermetic isolation and hushed personal reflection. It’s the thinking person’s journey, building a platform by hook or by crook and then using it to inspire like-minded peers to do the same. The continued success of the Bon Iver experiment is a function of an unblinking vision and the wisdom to know whom to have in the room; i,i maintains the streak. “What I think we need / Is elasticity, empowerment, and ease,” Vernon sings on “Salem.” We get up by getting together.