Signs and Wonder on Bon Iver’s i,i

Aarik Danielsen

“How strange it is to be anything at all,” Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum croons on his band’s signature anthem, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Whether or not Justin Vernon has ever heard that song, all his music sings along.

Vernon, founder and band leader of Bon Iver, has spent the last decade working out his own wonder through sound. Vernon’s songs explore and express a glorious paradox: every human being is a miracle and looms large on the planet. And yet, cosmically speaking, we are slight creatures whose lives barely dot history’s timeline.

Like few other artists, Vernon revels in both his bigness and smallness. Bon Iver’s songs squeeze into the space of a moment, yet also reach out to touch as much of creation as possible. The band’s latest, i,i (meant to be read “I comma I”), advances Vernon’s voyage into the beating heart of existence, as he and his cohort use sounds more than words to articulate their awe.

By now, Bon Iver’s creation myth has become canon. Emotionally and physically ailing, Vernon retreated to the Wisconsin woods and penned his generation’s definitive breakup album. On 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, strains of folk music framed his divine falsetto, gesturing toward an abiding interest in uniting joy and sorrow, heaven and earth.

His wounds healed, Vernon turned his attention to greater themes and bolder colors with 2011’s self-titled record, then to digital mystic vibes on 2016’s 22, A Million. His increasingly abstract lyrics begged a different sort of reading. Their physical sound and animating spirit matter as much or more than their substance. These are not stanzas of a poem, but something more like distillations of raw feeling—love, passion, satisfaction, confusion, delight. Occasionally, a clear-cut statement pierces the lovely lyrical fog. These lines always lead listeners back to the wonder at the core of Vernon’s vision: “Joy—it’s all founded” (from “Calgary”) or “And at once, I knew I was not magnificent” (from “Holocene”).

Bon Iver’s songs squeeze into the space of a moment, yet also reach out to touch as much of creation as possible.

Along comes i,i, which plays like a surrealist’s take on a BBC nature documentary. Warm washes and fantastic spasms of sound spell out Vernon’s emotional landscape—and set him up for periodic proverbs. This work is wild and elemental, the sound of every molecule in Vernon’s body bursting with life, craving connection. Early cut “iMi” expands and contracts, the production mimicking crashing waves, then soft, shimmering clouds. Vernon and company stake their claim to existence, repeating “I am, I am, I am, I am” before giving way to undulating strings and the squall of a horn section.

Glinty horns carry added weight on “We,” stirring the listener like first rays of light after a long winter. “Holyfields” opens with the whir and whoosh of ice thawing under that same long-lost sun. There, Vernon bends his melody upward and over chamber strings, as if trying to bask in all the brilliance and natural chaos.

The record’s most accessible and vulnerable cut, “Hey, Ma,” plays it relatively straight, centering Vernon’s voice over a gentle electronic pulse. The cut fits within the record, testifying that remaining tethered to lifelines and loved ones makes the sliding scale of being—from staggering to suffocating—manageable, embraceable even.

The hymn-like “Naeem” repeats and layers vocals, emphasizing “I can hear, I can hear, I can hear, I can hear crying” and furthering Vernon’s sensitivity to the lives being lived around him. In similar fashion, “RABi” cries out with something like certainty and resolve amid all the constant change: “Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway.”

Voices like instruments also ring out on “Faith”; Vernon breaks through strands of noise and sublime choral passages with affirmations such as “Time and again ... It’s time to be brave” and “Fold your hands into mine.” The song ends with the record’s sweetest exhortation to keep traveling headlong into the mystery: “I know it’s lonely in the dark / And this year’s a visitor / And we have to know that faith declines / I’m not all out of mine.”

Vernon never refracts the light he gathers in an orthodox direction, yet he makes music like someone who has internalized the rhythms of Psalm 8. There, David prefigures Jesus’ arrival, wondering aloud, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” This isn’t mere poetic prophecy, but an expression of awestruck reverence. David’s question comes as he considers God’s astral handiwork, “the moon and the stars, which you have set in place.” That God would make man—express affection for us, entrust us with his masterpiece—astonishes the psalmist.

The biblical story tells of a God closely involved with his creation. We stare up lost in the beauty of the heavenly canopy or feel our fragility surrounded by the wildness of a forest, then remember the God who made all this is even bigger and greater. That he would make men and women the highest notes in his opus, delight to commune with us, and even become one of us, is a reality worth pondering over and exclaiming about.

Dependence and wonder proceed from these reflections and, in Vernon, we find a kindred spirit, someone enamored with being alive. His awe should inspire our own. What a weird, wonderful joy to be anything at all—and to be loved by the maker of it all.

Topics: Music