All growth brings with it a sense of both continuity and discontinuity. Continuity because it is a movement from within, rather than an addition from without—the tree grows out of a sapling, for example; the boy grows into a man. But growth wouldn’t be growth if it didn’t involve some discontinuity—the tree is not the sapling, and the man is not the boy.
In addition to being one of the best indie music artists around these days, Bon Iver is also, I think, one of the best examples of this principle of growth, always including elements in his music that are somehow both surprising and unsurprising. If you listened to his latest album, i,i, having only ever listed to his debut album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, you might be surprised to learn that the two albums were by the same artist. For Emma, Forever Ago’s spare, folk-guitar driven tracks stand in stark contrast to i,i’s synth and electronic pop influences, but looking back at the last twelve years of Bon Iver’s evolution, one can see that Justin Vernon—the central force behind the band, which has had various contributors over the years—has kept the core of his artistic vision recognizable, while expressing it in ever-new ways.
Being vulnerable to the experience of reality
Bon Iver’s lyrics are central to his mastery—they express and evoke emotional depth without ever being manipulative about it. There’s never anything cheap about Vernon’s lyrics or music—indeed, one has to work to understand them most of the time (though it’s always worth doing so). I’m never entirely sure what exactly Vernon is talking about, but maybe that’s the point: Bon Iver’s music provokes reflection in its listener, not telling the listener exactly what to think, but asking her to reflect on her experiences through Vernon’s reflections on his own. In a way, Bon Iver’s music gives the listener the strength to be vulnerable to her own experience of reality because Vernon has already been vulnerable to his own.
In i,i, Vernon pulls back a bit from both the mystical and symbolic elements of 2016’s 22, A Million, as well as the synthesizers that occasionally made instruments and voices almost unrecognizable. But the album is just as reflective and vulnerable as his music has ever been. Starting with “iMi,” the album’s first full track, Vernon reflects on his life (“I am I”), but never in an explicit way, never articulating exactly how he feels (and therefore never telling us exactly how we should feel), but rather inviting us into the experience of seeing reality and being vulnerable to it in this way.
This self-reflective moment continues into “Holyfields,” in which Vernon pronounces that he “couldn’t learn it any other way” (what is “it”? I don’t know, exactly, but don’t we all have something that we couldn’t have learned any other way?) and reaches a sort of crescendo in “Hey, Ma,” perhaps the album’s most accessible track. “Hey, Ma” is bound to be nostalgia-inducing for just about anyone who listens to it, with its sweet and airy melody and reflections on childhood (the music video uses footage from Vernon’s own youth). The beginning notes of “Hey, Ma” invoke “Holocene,” a song from Bon Iver’s second album, adding to the song’s feelings of nostalgia—as if Vernon is explicitly recalling his musical roots before moving on to other stages of expression.
Faith: honest questions
And move on he does. “Naeem” and “Jelmore,” in the middle of the album, offer reflections on what it means to be and live together as people. The album then takes a turn with “Faith,” one of the most incisive reflections current pop culture has to offer about what faith is. Vernon asks what the nature of faith is, what we truly have faith in (God? Ourselves? Other people?), and how faith plays into this reality we call life. There is an ambivalence here, stemming naturally from the thoughtfulness Vernon brings to most everything he does. On the one hand, he seems to understand that faith in something is necessary for life—Vernon writes, “Time and again/ It’s time to be brave”—but on the other hand he questions what faith really gives us: “Do we get to hold what faith provides?”
This reflection on faith continues to the end of the album, concluding with “RABi”, in which we see, perhaps, the connecting thread of the entire album. Vernon writes, “This is not a veil/ or a fairy tale in the least,” and we see that the whole of i,i has been gently but persistently asking us to look at our reality and think about it. We are not acting in a play here, but experiencing something real, something that demands our attention, even if that attention brings pain with it.
Growth through change
Starting with reflecting on ourselves (“iMi”), looking at our own experience and childhood (“Hey Ma”), and moving on to our community (“Naeem”, “Jelmore”) and beyond (“Faith”, “RABi”), the album travels its own path of growth, broadening its vision of reality while still maintaining its identity. i,i starts with the self, and ends there too, but not in an egocentric way. The last line of the album is, “But if you wait, it won’t be undone.” We don’t have to change ourselves entirely—undo ourselves—to come to a better understanding of things. Rather, we should be patient with and vulnerable to reality, letting it saturate us and inform our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In this way, we’ll end up back at ourselves again—with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world.