I am the type of music fan who prefers to listen to a new album with “virgin ears,” uninterrupted and in the intended sequence. Because of this, I tend to avoid pre-release singles like the plague. I also try to make that first listen something of an event.
That being said, I couldn’t resist the first singles from the new Bon Iver record—”Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)”—when they came out in early June. Blame it on my unbridled love for Wisconsin’s unofficial poet laureate. It could also have had something to do with the fact that I had tickets to the band’s Summerfest show and the album wasn’t coming out until August, so I wanted to acquaint myself with the new tracks before potentially hearing them live.
Back in 2016, the last Bon Iver album debuted live—a month before its release—in front of 20,000 people at the Eaux Claires festival. I was there and tasked with reviewing the album/experience for an article to be published the next morning. In hindsight, it was a ridiculous assignment. But it was a new writing gig that I was grateful to have, so I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning thumbing away on my smartphone in my tent.
Who knew that three years later, when the next Bon Iver album came out, I would essentially do the same thing, but on my own volition at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport?
What had happened was that one of my best friends got married in Philadelphia over the weekend. When Bon Iver surprise-dropped the new album the week before, I decided that my departing flight would be the moment I first listened to i,i. I would hit play just as the plane took off.
Around lunchtime on the day of my departure I got a text alert that my flight was delayed. We were originally scheduled to get into Philly around 11 p.m., but wouldn’t be leaving Milwaukee until midnight. The day before, I ran into a friend at the TJ Maxx in what is left of the Grand Avenue Mall and learned that his dad was going to be on my flight. Once we learned of the delay he offered to give me a ride after trivia, so I joined them for a few rounds of beers and a glorious overtime victory.
We got three more text alerts about departure changes during trivia, with the last one pushing it to 1:09 a.m. Once we settled in at our gate I read from Hanif Abdurraqib’s fantastic new book Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest. The plane arrived shortly thereafter, but due to the crew “clocking out,” we then had to wait until a new crew drove up from Chicago. They estimated our departure at 3:25 a.m. Fuuuuuck.
At that point, I figured I might as well get into the Bon Iver album. I would be pretty loopy come 3 a.m., and maybe the plane would never take off? As Burns said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. It was high time to put in my earbuds, crank up that “good winter” and wander through our little airport. After all, I had at least two more hours to kill…
The first thing I notice on the album is Justin Vernon being a weirdo, yet again. A tinny phone recording (“Yi”) from a studio session starts the album, which segues into a gorgeous song called “iMi” featuring Camilla Staveley-Taylor, James Blake, and Velvet Negroni. The first thing I notice in the airport is a photo of Summerfest, with a warm glow emanating from the grounds. It might be a photography trick, but it feels close to the truth. Despite all the bullshit that revolves around The Big Gig, it’s a pretty magical place, like our own beer-soaked, guitar-laden Disneyland. This year’s installment was no exception, and Bon Iver’s amphitheater performance was easily my favorite moment. The movement from “Yi” to “iMi” makes me think about how far Vernon has come from playing Mad Planet with a couple of college friends to headlining Summerfest with a world-renowned band, behind a collaborator-heavy new album.
“We,” the album’s third track, begins with a heavy bass line and a deep voice doing what sounds like Native American chanting. It makes me think of Iron Boy, the indigenous group made up of Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe singers who have performed at Eaux Claires, sometimes alongside Vernon. The track employs various sound effects, vocal shouts, sax flourishes, and other pieces of sonic madness, but manages to tie them together through simple guitar strumming and Vernon’s singular voice. During the song I wander over to gates D54-D56, which are operated by American Airlines. This prompts a flashback to being nine years old and awaiting my first flight, which was to Los Angeles to visit family and, invariably, Disneyland.
The flashback inspires me to make my way over to the kids area as the fourth track, “Holyfields,” plays. The song features the lyrics “You ask me not to pull alarms / We have to act our ages,” which couldn’t be more fitting as I take my shoes off and bounce around, playing with the toys and gazing up at the tiny air balloon. The opening lyrics speak a larger truth about Vernon’s and my own life: “Danger been stepping in / I’m happy as I’ve ever been.”
“Hey, Ma” is just so goddamn good. That metronome beat and everything else around it, fucking gold. It’s the reason I broke my not-listening-to-singles-before-the-album-comes-out rule. I used to take that rule very seriously! I distinctly remember changing the station every time “The System Only Sleeps In Total Darkness” and “Day I Die” came on the radio before The National released Sleep Well Beast in 2017. But this year, Bon Iver inspired a free-for-all with the voluptuous earworm that is “Hey, Ma.”
“U (Man Like)” serves as a strong sidekick to “Hey, Ma.” Allegedly it’s a Bruce Hornsby song that he brought to a session at April Base—Vernon’s studio outside of Eau Claire—when recording Absolute Zero. The piano line and guest vocals blend brilliantly into a harmonious burst of beauty. Walking around the airport, I spot W. Kamau Bell on CNN as I listen to this song and immediately think about the excellent episode of United Shades Of America that centers around Milwaukee. If you haven’t seen it yet, borrow your dad’s cable login, get a Hulu subscription, or do whatever you need to do to watch that episode. If you’ve yet to grasp the difference between racism and implicit bias, this episode should help you out. (Also, was anyone else at his show in 2014 at Shank Hall? What a Sunday!)
While I’m still reading Hanif, I overhear a middle-aged woman pleading with a hotel in Philly to let her and her daughter check in early so that her daughter can catch a few hours of sleep before her college basketball tryout. That type of gravity is the perfect match for the anthemic “Naeem,” a song named after the Baltimore rapper/songwriter/Eaux Claires favorite/Bon Iver collaborator formerly known as Spank Rock. It’s one of a handful of songs on i,i that the band has been playing in their “Come Through” show with the Minnesota-based TU Dance company.
Midway through the album, when “Jelmore” starts playing, I realize that I have access to the lower level of the airport. This is a game changer. Downstairs there is an autowalk, or a moving walkway, or whatever you want to call it. It moves you without you having to move, which is an apt description of Bon Iver. I ride this pony back and forth, taking note of the “Stand Right, Walk Left” sign, despite an absence of fellow riders.
Faith is a touchy subject, or so I’m told. I believe in people. Not just the Vernon-led collective, but also humanity in general. Tragedy strikes and faith declines, sure enough. But our spirit endures. As Vernon sings on “Faith,” “There is no design / You’ll have to decide.”
The next couple of songs blur together as I ride the walkway back and forth, pausing once to look out the window into the abyss beyond the runway. “Salem” has some gorgeous moments. The word “reciprocity” jumps out at me. I think back to my time at the University of Minnesota, where I was granted in-state tuition as a Wisconsin resident. What a great program, but what a vehicle for northwestern brain drain. Despite all of his Twin Cities connections, Vernon continues to put his hometown of Eau Claire front and center, which we should never take for granted.
By the time “Sh’Diah” starts playing I make my way back upstairs. The song title is shorthand for “Shittiest Day in American History,” a reference to the day after Donald Trump was elected, which still feels like yesterday. In my head, there was an ominous soundtrack playing, but in reality, it was dead silence interrupted by my fiancée and I waking up her five-year-old daughter to inform her of our new, shitty reality. While listening to the song I examine the Leningrad Peace Mural, which I’m sure most people who’ve been to Mitchell Airport have come across. This clay art exhibit was created in 1989 and was meant to inspire understanding between our little part of the Western world and the Soviet Bloc. It’s a reminder of what relations with Russia looked like well before the Donald took office.
As the final song on i, i, plays I sit my exhausted ass in one of the massage chairs at Mitchell Airport. I swipe my credit card and before I can select a duration a Milwaukee County Sheriff interrupts my listening of “RABi” to inform me that the crew recently arrived from Chicago and the flight would be leaving shortly. Meanwhile, I am charged for a 30 minute massage. I sit there and enjoy what I can. While “Sh’Diah” would’ve served as a fitting closer, with its sublime saxophone solo, “RABi” also does the job.
In the song Vernon mentions something about sitting “creek side,” which makes me think of Eaux Claires and how it didn’t happen this year. It’s a sad thing, to be sure, but I trust that the festival will return next year, and though it may not be creek side, I hope it will maintain the same spirit.
I think about these things as a robot fist kneads my lower back. I think about how rare it is to have time to kill, how guilty I feel about stealing three minutes in a massage chair when I’m at a travel oasis on a road trip with my family or taking my stepkids to the mall. I think about how I never want to be the person who lines up as soon as the airline announces boarding. I’d rather sit in a massage chair and listen to Bon Iver and stroll up just in time. And that is precisely what I do.
The wedding is wonderful. It takes place at a fancy cricket club on the outskirts of Philly. During the rehearsal dinner I sit with my friends’ New York City crew. They are nice, but invariably I feel pressure to impress them, which is a vibe I tend to get whenever I visit him in the big city. I’d rather not. I’m thankful as hell that we—and by that I mean Wisconsin music fans—have a native son who is both impressive and unpretentious, and who is reinventing pop music with each album that he and his gang of collaborators release.
As I listen to i,i while walking around Philly it dawns on me that Bon Iver’s music can make any moment feel like an event—it’s just that radiant and rapturous. I also realize that if sadness is what endeared Justin Vernon to the world with his 2007 debut, it is now joy—his own and that which he engenders in those around him—that propels the Bon Iver project to greater heights.
The Bon Iver: Autumn Tour begins August 31 and will come to Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois on October 4. The band will also perform with TU Dance at the new Pablo Center in Eau Claire on November 22-24.