Sacred Harp (or shape-note) singing is one of the oldest American forms of sacred music, an a cappella, social form (the “sacred harp” refers to the human voice) that results in a cavernous, exultant sound. There is no single leader of a “singing.” The singers—they might number in the hundreds at the biggest gatherings—sit or stand facing each other in four sections and take turns conducting. This unvarnished, democratic approach means every singing is different, and even the most ubiquitous hymn will take on a new personality, flowing like a river of sound threatening to crest its banks.
Sacred Harp singing came to mind when I listened to the new offering from Bon Iver, the band helmed by folkster turned pop art impresario Justin Vernon. Since his 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon has been expanding Bon Iver from a solo project to an artistic collective. Four people created the music on For Emma. Twelve people performed on Bon Iver (2011). On 22, A Million (2016), the group became a crowd; there are more than thirty performance credits.
Still, the pressure on Vernon as a solo performer proved debilitating. The ensemble may have grown larger, but Vernon’s existential anguish was still all his own.
i,i, released in August of 2019, is different. Vernon is happier and healthier than ever, and this album is the fruit of recovery. It plays like a distillation of all Bon Iver’s previous moods, from sparse lovelorn tracks driven by Vernon’s falsetto to those that crash and jump with orchestral wallop, but the elements are disassembled and redistributed throughout, leaving a record, for the first time, full of air and even sun. There’s space in this record for the other. That may be because the wide circle of collaborators and touring partners has, finally, solidified into a village, or as Vernon says, “a little town of people trying to be good.”
A collaborative effort of 28 people, the record’s opener, “iMi,” is perhaps the clearest testament to the collective approach. The song was stitched together over at least half a decade. It began as a collection of found sounds, snippets of radio and shuffled cardboard. Mike Noyce’s vocal sample, which opens the track, sat on a hard drive for years before finding a home in the song. A small army of instrumentalists and vocalists contributed parts as well, including hip hop producer Wheezy and electronic artist James Blake on drums and synth, respectively, and alternative R&B artist Velvet Negroni and Camilla Staveley-Taylor, of English folk trio the Staves, provide backing vocals.
The song entered production in pieces, and thanks to some nifty tricks, emerged as a coherent whole. But it was still missing a crucial component: Vernon’s vocals. It wasn’t until he heard the produced version of “iMi,” the creative effort of a musical village, that inspiration struck and he wrote the lyrics.
Those lyrics underscore Vernon’s relief to find his collaborators beside him: “Living in a lonesome way / had me looking other ways” he burrs, the accompaniment ebbing for a moment so his words ring clearly. “On a bright fall morning, I’m with it / I stood a little while within it,” he sings. It’s as if, by standing in the light, Vernon saw himself clearly at last. “I am I am I am” the chorus repeats, triumphant (evocative of the bragging heartbeat of survival in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar). In knowing himself, he can extend an invitation: “I’ll show you in,” he sings, the music swelling alongside the multitracked vocals of many.
At the song’s close, brass and woodwind crescendo in an almost unbearable cavalcade, but instead of Bon Iver’s usual rhapsodic extended comedown, the song ends simply, with a single chord. There’s something revelatory about that, a glint of a firm epiphany. A shared moment is sufficient; existential fears are manageable when someone is holding your hand.
On “Faith,” Vernon implores the listener to “fold your hands into mine” in what could be a posture of prayer. “I know it’s lonely in the dark / And this year’s a visitor” he breathes, gentle as a mother at bedside. The unknowing is oppressive, and time won’t stop, but, again, there is the warmth of two other hands. He’s reassured by another person’s touch, which is enough.
A new commitment to noticing and caring for the other is all over i,i, and there are also critiques of those who refuse to do so. In a song about the 2016 election, Sh’Diah” (the title is a contraction of the words “the shittiest day in American history”), he laments how despite finding “time…for the Lord,” Christians who elected Trump are in a “fever” that prevents them from seeing what they “cease to be.” A funereal saxophone trails the track to its conclusion, giving the sense that this lack of self-awareness is something to be mourned. He also references the #MeToo movement on a track called “U (Man Like),” that chides men who lost sight of those they hurt: “Man, improve.”
As Sacred Harp singing stirs the blood because the music is made in community, i,i conveys a new buoyancy and a similar sense of inspiration.“The sunlight feels good now don’t it,” Vernon sings on “RABi,” which brings the record to a close like a lamp being dimmed. He seems to have found himself at last, by raising his own sacred harp in humble unison, singing and playing together, trying to be good.
Read more music writing from Jack Nuelle: “The Uncanny Universe of Natalie Mering“
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Written by: Jack Nuelle
Jack Nuelle is a writer currently based in Boston. He received his BA from the University of Chicago and MTS from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Follow him on twitter @j_c_nuelle.