Justin Vernon, frontrunner of Bon Iver, has always been a man of nature. Since his melancholy debut, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he has incorporated his environment into his tender, acoustic balladry. In his latest, Vernon stands up for the planet he admires so much with the bleak yet beautiful “i,i.”
A couple of weeks ago, I was with my mom at her alma mater, the tiny College of the Atlantic, located just off the coast of Maine. We met with one of her friends, who works in the admissions department at the school. I was drifting in and out of listening to their conversation when a phrase that I never heard before struck me dead center in the soul—“climate refugee scholarship.”
The college gave this scholarship to a student in Kiribati, a miniscule island nation of just over 110,000 people, allowing him the financial ability to study in one of our country’s leading green colleges for four years. This is before, perhaps, returning home to prevent it from sinking further into the rising oceans. Kiribati will almost certainly be inhabitable by the year 2100, if not sooner.
The world is ending.
That is no longer a debate. Study after study shows that, unless imminent worldwide action is taken, we are about to enter the most difficult era of humanity—and possibly its last. The global south is already facing the first wave of nature’s pushback against the past two centuries of mass industrialization, as coastal communities are seeing increased flooding and subsequent displacement like never before.
“Climate refugee scholarship” is a phrase you might hear a lot more in the coming years—your child might get one someday. Here’s another one that might gain traction: “climate apocalypse indie.” Bon Iver might have just brought that idea into the mainstream with “i,i.”
At first glance, “i,i” seems like a continuation of Iver’s foray into the experimental neighborhood of the mainstream indie landscape, furthering the vision first claimed in his 2016 project “22, A Million.” From a strictly musical perspective, this isn’t quite my cup of tea. Vernon’s earlier, more stripped back works fit his vibrant falsetto better, and allowed his delicate songwriting to shine through. Both his past album and “i,i” suffer from over-engineering, a virus he might have caught from his friend and frequent collaborator Kanye West, someone else who often fails when overthinking production choices.
However, Vernon and his band, primarily composed of like-minded Midwesterners, come through on a number of tracks on “i,i.” “Jelmore,” a harrowing but gorgeous hymn on social inequality and our changing world, showcases Vernon at his greatest. “How long will you disregard the heat,” he asks. “Half beat—it’s no misnomer though.”
The composition of this album is solid, but the message behind it is why it will be remembered for years to come. This album is not all gloom and doom—Vernon lays out the bleakness of our impending reality and offers a better world. On the outro of the calm yet jovial “Faith,” Vernon reminds us what’s important: “And we have to know that faith declines—I’m not all out of mine.” As existential a threat global climate change is, Vernon reminds us that a better world is out there. There are people, ideas and mindsets that we need to get through to reach it, but it’s absolutely there.
“i,i” may serve as a watermark (no grim pun intended) for when we realized that it might be too late for the status quo. It might just represent the time when we looked at our leaders, understood what and who they stood for and laid down the lawn signs for microphones. Or pitchforks. Or both. Or neither.
If you’re reading this in 50 years, you’ll know.
Daniel Cohn is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.