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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.