Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Bon Iver’s <i>i,i</i> and indie rock’s environmental apocalypse

Bon Iver’s i,i and indie rock’s environmental apocalypse

Photo: Cameron Wittig and Crystal Quinn, Graphic: Libby McGuire

Bon Iver albums are not known for their scrutability. Justin Vernon has long favored words’ sounds over their meanings, peppering his albums with neologisms like “dedicoding” and “paramind,” and encrypting the lyrics further still with a dense inter-album mythos of numerology and religious arcana and autobiography. And so it is not hyperbole to say that when, on the new i,i, he sings, “How long will you disregard the heat?” it is one of the most legible lines in his discography. He is talking quite specifically about climate change, and not just on “Jelmore,” with its images of gas masks and slow-moving depopulation, but on “Holyfields,” which features the prayer-like incantation “Dawn is rising / The land ain’t rising,” and on “Naaem,” in which he declares us all “young mastodons.” The desert imagery on the cover makes clear that “Hey, Ma” is not a Cam’ron interpolation but an invocation to the planet as it slowly chokes beneath our feet.

If you are of the disposition to hear a little climate change in everything, filtering through the news and in the dawn chorus like an uncorrected room noise to daily existence, moments like this can be a little, shall we say, whelming. We are living through the early symptoms of a vast and long-developing chain reaction that very well could, but will not necessarily, lead to the death of all life on Earth. That’s a lot to handle, sometimes! It is a reality that has increasingly shone through the cracks of our monolithic popular culture—a throwaway line here, a baked-in understanding of impermanence there—and that has, in the past year, taken particular root in the world of indie rock, on albums by Deerhunter, Animal Collective, and Weyes Blood, among others. The despair has begun taking increasingly strange shapes. Lana Del Rey’s latest single juxtaposes rising temperatures with other signs of the apocalypse, like Kanye dying his hair blond. With deranged glee, Grimes has declared her impending Miss_Anthropocene “a concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate Change.”

Still, it feels a little different coming from Bon Iver, an artist who has always had a singular relationship with the environment. He first emerged as an almost folkloric manifestation of the Wisconsin wilderness, where he had retired, some years prior, to recover from a bad breakup in his father’s hunting cabin, and maybe record some solo songs. A few weeks out in the woods turned into a few months, hunting deer for sustenance, getting beer deliveries from his dad, and going through day-long working trances that ultimately produced one of the all-time great breakup albums. For Emma, Forever Ago’s evolutionary advantage over all breakup albums previous—besides having “Skinny Love” on it—was to manifest its heartache as a specific, imaginary place. “Emma isn’t a person,” Vernon told The New Yorker in 2009. “Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.” It is also a place richly described through its flora and fauna, its wolves and crows and deep banks of snow.

Over his next two albums, Bon Iver took a second evolutionary leap, but remained fixated on this idea of songs as specific, individuated spaces. Bon Iver, from 2011, further blurred people with geography and era, dreaming up hallucinatory non-places like “Michicant” and, on “Holocene,” situating specific drunken memories within a geological timeline. (“At once I knew: I was not magnificent,” he sings of this vantage point.) Even real places, like Perth, Australia, become metaphysical, its “furling forests” promising life out of time. On the album’s unlikely, schmaltzy finale, a lovers’ dissolution is juxtaposed against the heat-flares of a distant star, and a computerized Vernon chirps, “This is axiom,” transcendence from human heartache achieved alongside transcendence from the planet. He declared the Bon Iver project “winding down” a couple years later, although 2016’s 22, A Million proved that even turning into a star didn’t free him from the human hurts and yearnings that instigated the entire Bon Iver project.

Indeed, Vernon was spurred to restart it by a panic attack while traveling in Santorini, Greece, where the phrase “It might be over soon” lodged itself into his head and then his OP-1. Was he talking about the apocalypse, or another breakup? When people are places, the answer is both. “The bad stuff might be over soon, but maybe the good stuff might be over soon,” he told The New York Times. “So you’d better figure out how to enjoy this life and participate in it.” The album obliterates the old framework, blasting Vernon’s signature falsetto into mechanized bits and scattering all those densely imagined places into far-flung scraps of binary code. He’s still in the woods, observing herons and lying face-down in the reeds, but they seem to be glitching, unreal, with pockets opening far elsewhere. His hometown of Eau Claire becomes a hallucinated fellow traveler; an Ace Hotel becomes a garden of Gethsemane. Were it the final album by the band, the narrative might merely be one of an artist struggling to exorcise his demons and also doing increasing amounts of DMT. But i,i returns to Earth—or, more accurately, it alights for the first time on the same Earth as the rest of us.

There are, of course, those sunburst moments addressing melting glaciers, references to coal mines and misogynists, even “Sh’Diah,” a track which is not named after some gnostic figure but, instead, the “shittiest day in American history”—that is, when Donald Trump took office. Other singers are layered over Vernon, such that his typical concerns—the roadmap to Emma, to Michicant, and so on—become almost imperceptible within the greater chorus. This is by design: It is an album about direct action, because, as he told Pitchfork, “You can’t do shit on your own.” After the attempted self-obliteration of 22, A Million, he embraces community in the face of apocalypse. I,i reflects climate anxiety but rejects climate despair. Vernon follows the black-sky desolation of “Jelmore” with the declaration that he is “not all out of” faith; the album concludes that “Some life feels good now, don’t it?” before warning, “But if you wait, it won’t be undone.” Even “Sh’Diah” feels like a moment of prayerful stillness amidst the hooting MAGA faithful. In lesser hands, this sort of DNC 2020 sloganeering could read as corny, but Vernon has always had an alchemical touch with sincerity. He turned heartache into Emma, Heath Ledger’s death into “Perth,” anxiety into math.

In one of the band’s ARG-like press releases, which typically serve as skeleton keys to deciphering each album’s more cryptic qualities, i,i is positioned as “autumn” in a four-album cycle that began with the winter of Emma. Even if that feels like a bit of a stretch for the middle two albums, it makes sense overall: I,i is as informed by the vast dying-off of the natural world as Emma was the snow-blanketed forests of Wisconsin. The digital bedlam of 22, A Million sounds better as the climax of a story that returned from druggy transhumanism with a more still and humane worldview. Vernon’s willingness to wildly transform between albums is part of what has made the Bon Iver project so consistently rewarding this past decade. That it has managed this without diminishing the emotional directness that initially drew our attention is why i,i can position itself not as an ending but merely as one turn of a cycle. It points, despite everything, forward.

Clayton Purdom is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.