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Later this month, Bon Iver will embark on its first-ever arena tour. It’s the latest benchmark for the Wisconsin indie act, a new pinnacle on Justin Vernon’s slow and unlikely climb to stardom. A recent behind-the-scenes documentary reveals his ambitious plans for the tour, including stunning visuals commissioned from hip underground artists and a new sound system promising 360-degree audio. From the looks of the pre-tour hype, the whole endeavor might very well turn the one-time cabin-bound project into a land-locked Pink Floyd.
Bon Iver’s entree into big-time rock production might come as a surprise, given pretty much everything Vernon has done since the platinum-selling success of 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Grammy-feted Bon Iver, Bon Iver. For much of the ’10s, Vernon has appeared to openly shun his celebrity and the popularity of Bon Iver, opting instead to work in a multitude of other bands (Volcano Choir, Big Red Machine, The Shouting Matches), and launch his own festival, Eaux Claires, and streaming platform, People. In 2016, Vernon revived Bon Iver after a five-year absence with 22, A Million, an abrasive and glitchy departure that took his band so far afield from its trademark ethereal, proggy Americana that it seemed like an aggressive provocation to those who had put “Skinny Love” or “Holocene” on their wedding reception playlists.
By maintaining his home base in northwestern Wisconsin, Vernon has also kept most of the outside world at a physical remove. He has a large circle of friends and collaborators who surround him as a kind of equivalent to Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, protecting him from the corruptive influences that often derail young rock stars. This sense of escape also pervades Vernon’s music — the wintery hideaway that defines the mythology of For Emma, the fantastical midwestern dreamland pictured on the cover of Bon Iver, the wiggy “this is a sonic representation of my anxiety” insularity of 22, A Million. For as successful as Vernon has become, he hasn’t exactly given his audience easy entry points. He’s a little distant. He almost always makes you come to him.
I say “almost” because something has changed on the fourth Bon Iver album, i,i. My favorite song on the record, “Faith,” opens with Vernon singing warmly over a briskly strummed guitar. It sounds improvised, a guy just pouring himself out in the moment, a callback to the first record. Inevitably, this reverie is turned upside-down with some discordant elements — some spine-tingling choral voices, a disorienting orchestral swirl, a sci-fi synth squeal. The same sort of fascinating weirdness you’ve come to expect from subsequent Bon Iver records.
But then … it kind of turns into a U2 song? The drums come in and they sound huge. An electric guitar rises in the mix, and it’s a searching and plaintive sound that triggers a Pavlovian feeling of uplift in your chest. Vernon downshifts from falsetto to his lower register. His vocal is clear and forceful. You can hear what he’s saying, and what he’s saying are the sorts of affirmations — “It’s time to be brave” — that you want to shout along with 15,000 other people.
Here’s a term I never thought I would apply to Bon Iver, but for this song and others it applies: “Faith” is totally arena rock.
There are moments like that all over i,i, the best Bon Iver album since the debut. It is certainly the most immediate and likable LP that Vernon has made in a long time. Even a song like “Holyfields,” a free-floating sonic specter that pits a disoriented melange of keyboards against eccentric orchestral swooshes, builds to a stirring climax punctuated by Vernon’s heart-rending emoting. And then there’s “Naeem,” the most purely anthemic song that Bon Iver has ever dared to produce. Vernon sings it like a gospel song, howling over a martial drumbeat and power chords.
Vernon has talked about i,i as a culmination of the other Bon Iver records, and you can hear flashes of what he’s done before throughout, whether it’s the campfire folk of “Marion” or the OP-1 that echoes in the foreboding “Salem.” But it’s the biggest and most soul-stirring moments that define the album. It sounds like Vernon embracing his destiny as (and I mean this as a compliment) the middle-American Coldplay.
It makes me suspect that i,i was specifically crafted for the venues that Bon Iver will play on its support tour. What’s known for certain is that it was made in a more collaborative fashion than previous Bon Iver records, with a variety of notable guest stars — ranging from Moses Sumney to Bruce Hornsby — making significant contributions. And they recorded as a band, which made the songs sound more impactful and outsized. (“We’re pushing more air,” Vernon says in the documentary.) There was also the fact that Vernon deigned to leave Wisconsin and record much of the album in El Paso, a move that has symbolic importance for a band moving from a sequestered existence to a larger and more outward one.
An important part of putting across music in large venues is learning how to communicate in gestures rather than words. As a songwriter, Vernon has long preferred to use his vocals as an instrument or mood-setter than as a way to plainly state an idea or story. On i,i, it’s possible to scour the lyrics and turn up social commentary, whether it’s the subliminal Trump reference in “Sh’Diah” (short for “shittiest day in America history,” i.e. the day after he was elected) or the hints of climate change in “Jelmore.” But as is usually the case with Bon Iver, the “message” is the feeling expressed by the music, which you get more from the warm, welcoming sound of Hornsby’s piano on the sparkling “U (Man Like)” than from the lyrics, which may or may not reference homelessness. (“How much caring is there of some American love / When there’s lovers sleeping in your streets?”)
The “point” of i,i — if we must put such intuitive music in frustratingly pedantic terms — is that the world might be a scary place, but there are still sounds and feelings that can put us all in the same headspace, if only for the duration of a rock show. Justin Vernon wants i,i to put you in that frame of mind. He decided to come to us this time.
i,i is out now via Jagjagwar. Get it here.