In the fall of 2006, a nasty band breakup and debilitating case of mononucleosis sent musician Justin Vernon from North Carolina back to Wisconsin, the state of his birth. Wanting to be somewhere cold, Vernon took up residence in the family cabin with the intention of recuperating, but found himself meticulously crafting innovative folk songs that winter instead which were later released under Vernon’s band, Bon Iver. In the summer of 2007, Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago was originally intended to be a loose group of demos, but ended up transforming Vernon’s life in ways the songwriter couldn’t have imagined during that now famous Wisconsin winter.
Today, Bon Iver ranks among the most celebrated and influential alternative acts in the world, and the project’s seasonal made-for-TV origin story still looms large in the minds of audiences. From its folk and soul-inspired roots to the project’s intrepid electronic explorations, Bon Iver has evolved in some remarkable ways over its 13-year tenure, but without forgetting the fruitful winter of its inception. This July, the band released Sincerity is Forever in Season, a short video teaser matching each Bon Iver album to a season. Out August 30th, i, i is being promoted as the band’s fall album closing the loop on a seasonal-inspired grouping of song cycles that have been more than a decade in the making.
On 2016’s 22, A Million, Bon Iver leaned heavily on stunning electronic effects to craft a frenetic album themed around uncertainty. Judging by the four tracks the band has released from i, i, the project is using these same tech-enabled tools to explore human warmth, hope, and resignation this time around.
“Faith” boasts intimacy and charm with a skillful orchestral and electronic blend flanked by Vernon’s distinguished vocal. With sudden bursts of electro-treated vocal euphoria, it’s a song that feels vast and transcendent, but also approachable and familiar. With meandering horns and unstable synth patterns, the drumless “Jelmore” is a weary machine held together only by layered, emotive vocals: “One by one, we’ll be gone by the fall / One by one, we’ll be gone by the falling light.” Save for notable vocal help from Bruce Hornsby, Moses Sumney, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, “U (Man Like)” is a conventional piano-driven call and response vocal affair with gorgeous results.
With ephemeral vocal effects that float unpredictably around a stabilizing electronic submarine blip, “Hey, Ma” swells and emotes without ever quite developing into what you’d expect. Whereas the music on 22, A Million was eager to present itself as bold and even aggressive, the music here, particularly the percussive elements, feels intentionally reigned in for the sake of nuance. Winding distorted drums are exchanged for thick, intimate vocal treatments and sprawling electronic soundscapes give way to music that prioritizes the sort of emotional musical intelligence that made Vernon’s debut winter-inspired work so affecting. Like Bon Iver’s summer album 22, A Million, there’s still plenty of skillfully constructed mania to be heard in these tracks, but it takes a backseat to the compelling human dramas playing out in the music.
Bon Iver’s summer and fall albums almost didn’t happen. In 2011 after a crush of international success that lead to Grammy nominations and an unexpected, widely publicized collaboration with Kayne West, Vernon announced that Bon Iver was “winding down” and explained that the attention the band was receiving was distracting. After Bon Iver’s initial success, Vernon has written and produced for multiple critically acclaimed projects, including Volcano Choir, The Shouting Matches, and Poliça. Bon Iver fans were elated when the band announced a new tour and album in 2015.
The music released in Bon Iver’s unexpected second act seems to be bent on examining the human perspective through the dizzying lens of technology. Vernon’s beloved project might have been conceived in a humble Wisconsin cabin the dead of winter, but it’s clear now through listening to Bon Iver’s new music that the band wasn’t content staying there. The new album was written and recorded during an extended period of self-imposed isolation that took place both in Texas and in Vernon’s Wisconsin retreat April Base Studios. There’s still plenty of attention and acclaim being directed at Bon Iver, but it appears that Vernon has found effective methods for tuning out the world and creating on his own terms.
Bon Iver performs with Sharon Van Etten at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado on September 3rd.