Many of them were mad at him then, but the baffled Grammy viewers who tweeted out “Who is Bonnie Bear?” when Bon Iver won Best New Artist over Nicki Minaj in 2012 were really paying tribute to the band whose name they had butchered. Bon Iver, once a one-man folk brand and now an experimental noise-pop collective, thrives on being misheard.
I thought the Wisconsin band’s impressive new album, i,i, provocatively addressed “the towers in New York” and being “young and gay then” until I read the lyrics about “the towers and the oar” and being “young when you were gave it.” The nonsense track titles—“Yi,” “Jelmore”—appear to refer to certain mouth-sounds, not their corresponding words (yeah, angel more) in the songs. Bon Iver advertised the album with the slogan “Keep it restaurant,” which is a joke on the delivery of the lyric “Keep it rational,” which shows up in the new song “Sh’Diah,” whose title abbreviates “Shittiest Day in American History,” which refers to the Wednesday after Donald Trump’s election.
You can squint at the gnomic, squiggly symbology packaged with Bon Iver’s work; you can go to Reddit and debate what’s happening beneath the manipulated vocals and neologism-packed lyrics. Eventually, you might make some guess as to what the frontman Justin Vernon is getting at, meaning-wise. It’s mostly beside the point. I’m personally a sucker for artists you have to decode. But with Bon Iver, the more I focus on the words, the more it feels like Vernon does deserve the mockery he sometimes receives for being the ultimate MFA bro—someone who’d subject a bonfire to poems that look like captchas.