A quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night is tattooed on the ribcage of a close friend of mine. The tattoo says simply “an ochre stitch” – pertaining to a description of the novel’s schizophrenic Nicole, “her yellow dress twisting through the crowd, an ochre stitch along the edge of reality and unreality”. This image of Nicole – a character who straddles the border between reality and unreality, wellness and illness, object and subject and lover and patient – is no passing metaphor. The colour ochre, a deep, musty yellow, is vivid in its subtlety: not passionate red or gloomy blue. It represents an ambivalent state: torn, anxious, not fully understanding an emotion’s provenance or if it’s real or imagined.
This ochre area is difficult to capture artistically, but something akin to it has afforded Bon Iver – the now decade-long music project from Wisconsin-born Justin Vernon – its enormous success, and is crystallised on new album i,i, a record released as a surprise digital drop today. Bon Iver’s music is known for its emotional impact, but its real beauty is in its ability to toe this line of tension between real and surreal, to embrace hovering on the edge. The new album is a realisation of settling into this sensation, and it demonstrates accumulated skill in melodic writing and expressiveness. Its large band makes the whole record feel communal, and it comes with an air of confidence.
Throughout their work, Bon Iver have broadened their horizons while staying fixed to their roots. Bon Iver (and Vernon as its frontman) have been a symbol of melancholic introspection since their first album For Emma, Forever Ago was released in 2008. With his cryptic sadness, beard and plaid shirts, Vernon became a pin-up for late-2000s hipsterism: on For Emma, he sings songs of lost love backed mostly by an earthy acoustic guitar. But his distinctive vocal is what lends For Emma its lasting impact. Vernon’s voice ranges from falsetto to baritone with formidable control – until it breaks with emotion on “Skinny Love”, the band’s most famous song. It’s a record of wintry landscapes: a story now central to the band’s mythology is that Vernon wrote this album holed up in his father’s cabin in the woods, over three months of a Wisconsin winter. The whole record is slightly muffled, as though beneath a heavy layer of snow.
Bon Iver’s self-titled second album, too, has a strong sense of place, with songs like “Perth”, “Hinnom, TX” and “Calgary” building a landscape that is based in reality but necessarily imagined by the listener – hovering somewhere between the two. “Woods”, the final track on 2009 EP Blood Bank (released between For Emma and Bon Iver), perhaps best captures this liminal space. Repeating a single verse over and over, the lyrics refer to both physical and emotional isolation: “I’m up in the woods / I’m down on my mind”. Musically, “Woods” is a departure: it consists solely of acapella vocals, heavily distorted by a vocoder, with gradually layered harmonies. The sonic landscape becomes increasingly intense and obtuse as we are plunged deeper and deeper into woods both literal and metaphorical – a real and surreal location.
Subsequently sampled by Kanye West, “Woods” seemed to mark the beginning of a new era for Bon Iver, the start of their stadium-filling, electro-acoustic sound. Their next release in 2016, 22, A Million, is futuristic and complex, awash with crackling noise distortions, vocoder and heavy harmonies. Any sense of place is now distorted: distant noises are juxtaposed with jarringly immediate sounds.
New album i,i feels like an amalgamation of all this previous work. Vernon has said it “feels very much like the most adult record, the most complete.” i,i deliberately embraces uncertainty. It incorporates the elements of electronica and surrealism that we saw on 22, A Million, but provides space for those currents to be grounded.
On the first full track, “iMi”, a synthesised “shh” sound comes in waves; the vocal is distorted and full of repetition, as Vernon sings “I am / I am / I am / I am / I am / I am / I am” until the meaning of the phrase degrades. But there is also a moment of blistering clarity, when Vernon sings in a low register an almost mundanely affectionate lyric: “I like you, I like you / And that ain’t nothing new”. “” explores Vernon’s extraordinary vocal range, electronically layering recordings of his own voice in octaves before continuing in falsetto. “Naeem” is raw and full of drive, with call and response between the vocal and instrumental, and heavy drums that nod to Vernon’s previous collaborations with the Dessner brothers of The National. Its stadium-filling proportions are reminiscent of those that began to emerge on Bon Iver in songs like “Beth/Rest”.
Perhaps what is newly distinctive about i,i, though, is its emphasis on community. Vocals are not just heavily harmonised or overdubbed, but sung by choirs and groups. “Hey, Ma”, is an emotive reflection on the mother-child relationship, telling the listener to “call your ma”. It is more declarative and confident than the murky and melancholic “Flume”, first track of For Emma, which had similar themes: “I am my mother’s only one / It’s enough”. “U (Man Like)” embraces the collective feel: it has classic Bon Iver overdubbed vocal but with voices other than his own. There is a broad range of instrumentation: saxophone, brass and strings as well as piano, synth and guitar. Throughout, i,i is self-aware but no longer introspective: Bon Iver face us head-on.
Sometimes, in sad or anxious moments, we need to retreat, submerge, look inwards. Sometimes we need to lift ourselves out. And sometimes we need to hover in our indecision, in that ochre world, and accept some things will never find resolution. Bon Iver can take us to all of these places. Emotional uncertainty is a difficult concept to portray musically, but on i,i, Bon Iver settle into this mode with quiet conviction.
“This is not the sound of a new man / Or a crispy realisation”, Vernon sings on “re: stacks”, the final track of For Emma, Forever Ago. There is foreshadowing here. i,i is not the big reveal. It’s not a sudden discovery of truth after years of angst; not a “crispy realisation”. “It’s not knowing the road / I’d known as a child of god / Nor to become stable”, according to “Faith”, its ninth track. Bon Iver have retained quintessential original elements: tender falsetto and fuzzy suspension chords. In adding pulsing synths, screeching choirs, distorted noise, their power has grown. No longer the lonely man in the woods, Bon Iver have embraced an openness that is simultaneously more vulnerable and more self-assured. i,i is not a distilling of the wholehearted emotion that propelled Bon Iver to fame, but an equally head-clearing embracing of complexity, doubt and ambivalence – a moving acceptance of the in-between.