Comparing the Recency in Bon Iver

post written by Sean Downey
in MusicArtist Review

The conceptual centerpiece of Bon Iver's third LP, 22, a Million, happens across the transition of the 7th and 8th songs, starting with 21 M00N WATER and ending with 8 (circle). 21 M00N WATER, perhaps one of the darkest moments on the album, opens with warm synths and the faint croons of Justin's voice fading increasingly behind them, until the song is taken over by a heavily manipulated form of his voice speaking "the math ahead, the math behind it". As the song unfolds and Justin's voice becomes increasingly distorted, samples, screams and do I say even growls flood the mix. Like radio-frequencies turning into buzzes the further you drive, Justin himself is being overtaken; and in this specific context, Justin is falling apart. But just as soon as the cluster of shrieks couldn't get more unbearable, the voices loosen, some strings re-enter, and we are rescued by warm synths again but this time by 8 (circle). Unironically, after a few measures Justin enters in with a clear, crisp, slightly layered baritone. And this is perhaps the most confident Vernon has ever sounded. "You called and I came, stood tall through it all" he belts, and follows with "say nothing of my fable" almost as if he's preaching; he's come out of the darkest, most confusing moments in his life with so much clarity its almost transcendent.

This theme of using numbers, binary, voice manipulation and distortion was massive in terms of Justin's message on 22, a Million. In an album announcement, Justin says "Rather than places we encounter a collection of numerical relationships: binary code, mystic ages, Bible chapters, math-logic, repeating infinities. Inside these numbers are a sonic distillation of imagery from the past years of turbulence and how to recover." Math represents the problems to be solved in life's temporalities, and finds Justin firmly placed in his present, deciding between paths to overcome these issues. Having to traverse the difficulties Justin has had to face in his lifetime is indicative of the deep uncertainty he's also had to come across - hence his usage of heavy voice manipulation to pair with numbers across the album. In this case, the voice manipulation is more of a contextual statement rather than textural.

Album Cover
Fig1. - 22, a Million cover

Whether you actually enjoy Bon Iver, are a fan of (very) emotional indie folk, or even follow modern musicians, the evolution of Bon Iver as a narrative artist is basically...perfect. Justin opens his solo career as indie music's modern legend - he retreats to his dad's cabin in deep Wisconsin right after two terrible breakups with his prior band and his girlfriend, and alone writes For Emma, Forever Ago, the backbone instant classic to our sentiment-loving generation. But instead of cementing himself as the lone, coffee house breakup artist, he brings in a full-band affair and writes a beautifully-composed grand statement on alcoholism and personal downfall that turns out to be one of the higher musical moments of the decade. --BUT THEN-- instead of cementing himself as forever the soft, string-loving crooner, he pulls perhaps one of the biggest left turns in folk music history by embracing the strange and experimental, risking the loss of many easy-listening fans but turns out possibly his most artistic endeavor, and ends up gaining even a larger, more respected fanbase and proving he is alone one of the greater conceptual artists of the generation.

And this is where I believe Bon Iver's most recent release, i,i, is a little bit of a misstep. Up until this point, each one of Justin's works has been almost a complete reinvisioning of himself and his band. Each album goes to the farthest possible edge his artistic visions can reach, which ultimately I believe will place him as one of the most remembered and important artists of the past (2) decades. But what was maybe left for Bon Iver to create, was who is Justin at the center of all of this? Who is he without the layered echoes, without the decay of his voice, without the vulnerable falsetto?

Before comment, i,i isn't by any means a failure. i,i is still a continued push by Bon Iver for what folk and indie music can really mean, and the possibilies of the genre. Vernon stated upon the release of the album that the community around Bon Iver has continued to grow and grow over the past decade, and this newest release is in larger part a wide participation of all those artists, and the band itself is now more of a fluid figure and affair. What I think I don't love about this album, though, is that instead of being a complete reinvisioning of the artist, it is more of a continuation of the more pop-oriented elements that 22, a Million established, but in a more textural position. Across the album, he's using similar samples, floating strings and fluttering horns, and most distinctly related to LP3, the layers added to his voice rather than echoes of his first two LPs. But for here, it feels more as a textural element rather than in context-form over function so to speak. And because of this I think the album fails as a whole-bodied statement compared to his past efforts.

Album Cover
Fig1. - i,i cover

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely things I enjoy about the record - his continued use of his baritone, the melodies sounding much more positive and warmer than past records - but for an album that stands to address and study the development of self, hence "i,i", it still relies too heavily on abstractions and samples to convince me I'm getting the real Justin Vernon. Justin's songwriting even feels a bit forced on the album, which I think is something nobody could expect from the guy considering his writing has always historically been more stream-of-consciousness and fluid. But in i,i, Vernon's singalong moments rely too much on abstraction and lack of context than past efforts such as on For Emma and Bon Iver. "You're back and forth with light" on Hey Ma feels awkwardly placed in comparison to the rest of the chorus, and the shrill repetition of "I can hear crying" on Naemm feels all but natural, and more of another effort at just a forced singsong.

I guess why I particularly don't enjoy these songs as much is because his work since 22, a Million has seemed slightly derivative of 33 God (which I didn't care for), and SHOULD'VE been derivative of ____45____. Justin's voice on ____45____ is absolutely beautiful - it's bare, naked, baritone, !!!!!UNLAYERED!!!!!, completely at the forefront, and not to mention the PERFECT reaction to the glitchiness and confusion of the songs prior. This is where I was hoping would be the jumping off point to where Justin would explore his new project, where he get completely him without any other ringing, and minimalist yet super-provoking instrumentation to pair with his natural talent. It was one of my favorite endings to any albums I heard.

But in reality, this is just another case of what I want from an artist rather than what's in their plans. i,i is still a push for Bon Iver and the indie genre, and incorporates some fantastic production. Seeing Bon Iver live is a completely unique experience, especially when he breaks out of his falsetto and uses his naked baritone-which is ultimately what I was hoping for from this record, but maybe I was just supposed to wait one more.