It’s been three years since the 2016 release of the critically-acclaimed “22, A Million,” and Bon Iver is finally back with new music. The indie-folk band behind heartfelt ballads such as “Skinny Love” and “Holocene” released two new songs from its upcoming album on Sunday at the close of its performance at the London-based All Points East festival.
The group played the studio recordings of the two tracks for the audience; this came in tandem with the announcement of an upcoming tour. For fans who’ve been waiting for new material, “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)” are a long-awaited sign that Bon Iver isn’t done just yet.
As with all of its previous work, “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)” both share their message with the simple, uncluttered elegance Bon Iver is known for. Never rising above a mid-level volume, both tracks offer listeners a sonic experience akin to the feeling of sailing across a still lake on a cloudless day, all guided onward by lead singer and band founder Justin Vernon’s clear, layered vocals.
A common feature shared by both tracks is a lengthy list of collaborators. As described on a new website announced by the group, Bon Iver brought in artists such as American singer Moses Sumney, American guitarist Phil Cook and Jenn Wasner, one of the founding members of the band Wye Oak. The result is what Vernon described in a press release at the festival as being an “amorphous collective.” If “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)” are any indication of the quality that came out of the collective, Bon Iver’s collaborative concept worked brilliantly.
“Hey, Ma,” the first track of the preview, opens with a simple motif built out of an oscillating piano line supported by chord changes on a gentle synthesizer underneath. On top of this sits Vernon’s vocals, layered and panned to provide a full sound. Singing in the song’s chorus, “Full time, you talk your money up while it’s living in a coal mine / Tall time, to call your ma / Hey ma, Hey ma,” Bon Iver takes a moment to quietly reflect on the dangers that the ideals of money and wealth often present. Instead of offering the enlightenment that’s often believed to accompany them, they often untether an individual from the grounding that only family can provide. Accompanied by a music video made of family footage clips from the Vernon family, “Hey, Ma” offers a soft-spoken, yet powerful reminder to never forget one’s roots and the importance of things such as family and personal relationships that are worth more than all the gold in the world.
The preview’s second half, “U (Man Like)” departs from Bon Iver’s usual synth-based songwriting. The record features a confident, rich piano lead and choir-style vocals recorded in an open-air style to give them a sound usually ascribed to a church choir echoing off the walls of a sanctuary — it bleeds gospel. With the addition of the epitomic ’80s gospel instrument, the Hammond B3 electric organ, “U (Man Like)” sits outside the expected Bon Iver sound, but somehow, it’s fitting and gives listeners the impression that nothing else would be apt to fill the second spot on the feature. The harmonies are tight, the lyrics — such as “How much caring is there of some American love / when there’s lovers sleeping in your streets” — hit hard and the music ebbs and flows in perfect tandem with the vocals; it’s different, but “U (Man Like) is still firmly Bon Iver.
Vernon and his band know what they’re good at. After three years, Bon Iver is back with the promise of an album that looks like it’s going to give the music scene a new collection of skillfully written, anthemic ballads, this time from the minds of a whole host of collaborators. Both “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)” offer high expectations for Bon Iver’s upcoming album, and, if the two songs are any indication of what’s to come, high expectations are perfectly valid.
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.