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(ESSAY) Bon Iver’s hauntological i,i (William Fleming)


Image Copyright: Bon Iver / Jagjaguwar 

In this essay, William Fleming takes a detailed look at bon iver’s new album, i,i: through acid communist hauntology to oedipal melancholia and the future’s cybernetic fracture. 

> This week I’ve been reading Mark Fisher and listening to Bon Iver’s new album on repeat so I combined the two.

> Mark Fisher, in his Ghosts of My Life (2014), laments the dearth of creativity in popular music after the turn of the century, the loss of experimentation and of hearing something New and Radical, and the persistent replication of past methods, sounds and images. Fisher was no Adorno though (I don’t think anyway?). His essays are emotive and developed from a deep desire for a compassionate politics; Ghosts evokes the pathos of his seminal Capitalist Realism (2009). One of the key themes associated with his work on pop culture, is the use of the Derridean term ‘Hauntology’: the haunted ontology of futures that never came to be, the spectral disturbance of time and place as the possibility of political becoming dissipates. As he details in Ghosts, Fisher initially used hauntology as a genre-defining term for music. He identified artists which were ’suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised memory’, this results in us being made ’conscious of the playback systems’ and of ‘the difference between analogue and digital’, ’hovering‘ out of reach behind the media’. Fisher uses this conceptual framework to analyse a raft of musicians and their work but there is a consistent emphasis on the political narratives of class and race which shape these cultural offshoots.

> Despite being one of the biggest records of this summer – and thus perhaps a bit bait for me to discuss? – Bon Iver’s i,i bares all the hallmarks of the hauntological genre: melancholia, the clash of digital and analogue, anachronism, the suggestion of political solidarity, artistic experimentation.

> First a confession: I first listened to Bon Iver because, in 2011, there was a girl on twitter I fancied who posted a video to Birdy’s Skinny Love. Birdy’s rendition is a wisp of a song, sad and grasping and completely lost on a shallow sixteen-year old and probably rightfully so. Failing to select the next song, I’m guessing Bon Iver’s original version played. For the first time I felt I’d discovered adult Sad Music. None of the ghd straightened, dip-died, angst-ridden emo tunes I’d gotten into a few years prior to impress my first girlfriend; or the one ballad acting as the penultimate track on one of the indie-rock albums from my older brother’s excessive collection. (- Does anyone know how to recycle these properly?). I would wallow in performative sadness playing immediately gratuitous and instantly gratifying XBOX games, quickly repeating the heartbeating guitar of Lump Sum on For Emma, Forever Ago or the wails of Holocene from Bon Iver, Bon Iver as I pined for my yet-to-be second girlfriend.

> I went off Bon Iver for a few years: these days, the quiet acoustic melancholia of these first two albums doesn’t fit with any aspirational sense of masculinity of mine. Being a man and being non-toxically emotional isn’t about listening to acoustic guitars and barely audible snares whilst you lie sulking in your room or on the drizzled walk to the library or job you hate. Instead it’s about communication, solidarity and empathy – ‘I’d be happy as hell, if you stayed for tea’. And so, when 22, A Million came out I was into it. Everyone thought it was a bit shit the first time few times they listened to it but this gave me cover to pretentiously purvey that they just didn’t get it and listen to it over and over. It was still the same anguished voice of Justin Vernon – but it was finally coming to life. Revived through stretched synthesizers, neologisms which made you question the contributors on A-Z Lyrics, and deconstructed bass. The piano riff on 33 “God” interrupted by alien helium-infused voices and the stammering, looping saxophone of 45 are still highlights. Listening now, 22, A Million initiated the hauntology of Bon Iver.

> At times, i,i feels like Bon Iver’s latest album is a playback of their first album, but one done through a signal sent by an analogue walkie-talkie found on the abandoned spaceship from Alien: Isolation – itself maybe the most harrowing video-game I’ve ever played, one which is played in constant anticipation of being found. Listen to the intermittent signal of Holyfields,: the bleeps and radio fuzz a beacon we sent out into space, only for it to sporadically and hauntingly talk back at us – a cultural SOS signal.


> i,i is the same guitar riffs from albums one and two but cybernetically fractured through time. The same syncopated kick drum but ripped out from the mid noughties and dumped in a Iain M. Banks novel or an episode in Love, Death + Robots. Fisher, quoting Derrida, quoting Hamlet: ‘the time is out of joint’. In these time fractures, it’s not just the music’s original location which is torn into the future, but also objective fragments of past culture: the sax (Sh’Diah) and violin strings (Faith) torn from eras when politics and music were still intertwined.

> The first track on the album, Yi, is garbage. But it is orbital astro-garbage – a notable anthropocenic feedback loop! – sitting uncomfortably at the stratosphere of an album which explicitly reflects on ecological destruction. Yi’s inaudible conversation and the ‘Are you recording, Trevor?’ set it up as a soundcheck for the album too. Including a soundcheck evokes Vernon’s emphasis on the album as a performance piece in the accompanying mini-documentary Autumn. In the doc, Vernon mentions the problem of ‘How is it going to be played live?’. Immediately, we are forced to imagine i,i as more than just another album on Spotify.

> Yi bleeds into iMi, a psychedelic echo of a track built from interspersing a melancholic vocals/arpeggio combo and an encroaching synth/dub beat combo. We is similarly eclectic, digitalised vocals juxtaposing with endearing, major-key sax. Following is Holyfields,, perhaps the most alien but most beautiful song on the album.

> Hey, Ma is the headline single from the album. An ode to Vernon’s mother and a sense of the sunrise walk home after the summer party (I’ll try and avoid further seasonal references: the four albums are set up to represent the four seasons, i,i being autumn, but IMO this is pretty naff).

> There is a sense of time passing in Hey, Ma, a nostalgia for the yet to be – ‘Well you wanted it your whole life’ – but with this passing is a sense of desire – ‘I wanted all that mind, sugar / I want it all mine’ – and of becoming or evolving – ‘You’re back and forth with light’. Becoming is the famous Deleuzean postmodern motif; i.e. being is constantly flowing and reforming. Bon Iver’s becoming, however, is not a flow, but a hauntological wrench into the future state. The entire album feels as though you’re experiencing the tech-enhanced evolution of Bon Iver’s music. That skipping between soft indie and futuristic synth reminiscent of the OG Pokemon games when your Pokemon was evolving and it would flicker between its past and future states. But becoming is never complete. As Fisher highlights, ‘futuristic’ no longer refers to a time/space but is now merely an adjective. We’ll never hear the Bon Iver made entirely on digital tech.

> For Fisher, melancholia is a productive force of political resistance. He distances his ‘hauntological melancholia’ from that of Wendy Brown’s ‘left melancholia’ which ‘seems to exemplify the transition from desire (which in Lacanian terms is the desire to desire) to drive (an enjoyment of failure)’. Fisher’s melancholia, ‘by contrast, consists not in giving up on desire but in refusing to yield'. Under scrutiny, Bon Iver’s first two albums fail this melan-test – they are a spectacular, self-pitying self-indulgence. Self-pity as a common form of masochism. For Deleuze, thinking through Jung, thinking through Bergson (yeap, I know), masochism is always regressive, flipping the Oedipal on its head as a form of un-becoming.

> Is Vernon’s song to his mother a masochistic form of melancholia; a self-pitying reversal of the Oedipal? ‘I wanted a bath / “Tell the story or he goes”’; ‘Tall time to call your Ma / Hey Ma, hey Ma’. The type captured by Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts (2015) when reflecting on Ginsberg’s poem Kaddish, which is dripping in, in Nelson’s words, ‘misogynistic repulsion’. Or is Bon Iver’s a hauntological melancholia? One of stubborn resistance. The type of mother-son relationship photographed by Donald Weber in his response to Alison Sperling and Anna Volkmar’s conversation on the post-atomic (Kuntslicht, 39: ¾). Weber’s photographs were taken over two years in Chernobyl. The, now fetishised, explosion in Chernobyl perhaps the example of the nuclear, a hauntological theme post-WWII, made material. The bursting of a political, biological and biopolitical reality which was never meant to be. Weber’s photo of a middle-aged man and his elderly mother is captioned: ‘Mothers sought to be photographed sitting close to their sons, in domestic scenes of proud companionability. Their eyes signal an unalterable communion. And more – elevation. A man’s mother transcends the material order, and rises easily above even the most squalid circumstances. It is the frank declaration of her biological supremacy: This is my child’. If it is this relationship captured in Hey, Ma, it may promise a spectre which can be made material. An artefact which can continue its evolution, its becoming. ‘Let me talk to em / Let me talk to ‘em all’.

> Finally, that Hey, Ma’s nostalgia is a culturally productive one is suggested by one of its more memorable lines: ‘I waited outside / I was tokin’ on dope / I hoped it all won’t go in a minute’. In Fisher’s posthumously published Unfinished Introduction to Acid Communism, he, when imagining the process of resistance and a new politics whilst citing Jefferson Cowie, writes ’these new kinds of workers – who “smoked dope, socialised interracially, and dreamed of a world in which work had some meaning” – wanted democratic control of both their workplace and their trade unions’. The curious, outdated use of ‘dope’ in Vernon’s lyrics then mirrors Cowie’s use of ‘dope’, echoing Cowie’s nostalgia for a lost working-class culture of 1970s America. Fisher uses Cowie’s argument to piece together an acid communism, which I will return to, but this, surely consequential, similarity further constructs i,i as a contemporary hauntological album.


> Following Hey, Ma comes the Sunday-school piano of U (Man Like). Raising an image of a crisply ironed, white America, like that depicted in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), which acts as a reminder that nostalgia isn’t always productive. However, the nostalgia is continued with Naeem ‘Oh, my mind, our kids got bigger/ … / You take me out to pasture now’. Fisher asks ‘is hauntology, as many of its critics have maintained, simply a name for nostalgia?’. However, he argues that it is not a ‘formal nostalgia’ but one of solidarity and of a longing for the process of social improvement. Naeem, despite its nostalgia, continues the flickering between hope and despair. The joyful ‘More love / More love / More love’ and ‘I can hear, I can hear’; the anguished ‘I can hear crying’ and ‘What’s there to pontificate on now? / There’s someone in my head’. The latent and angelic child-like choir on Naeem another hauntological theme. As Fisher declares, ‘no doubt there comes a point when every generation starts pining for the artefacts of its childhood’. However, Vernon’s evoking of childhood is one perhaps linked to the, at times damaging, trope of ‘future generations’ in environmentalism. It is still a political longing though – ‘I’d Occupy that’. Occupy: that great post-2008 political uprising which dissipated into a mere exemplar in an undergraduate geography textbook.

> Next, Faith brings back the aliens from 33 “God” but this time, for attention, they’ve brought their clean guitar and slowly morph into the catholic choir we began to hear on Naeem. God died and, despite the sexy, liquidity of our modernity, we miss him.

> Marion momentarily brings us back from the cybernetically fractured semi-future. Back to the £3-coffee coffee-shop where you’re telling your friend that you think you and that girl will probably get back together but you need the time to be right. The hope is sucked back out; we’re back in capitalist realism and Arctic Monkey’s fourth (fifth?) album. Luckily, Salem restarts the signal to bring us back from our self-pity, dragging us to the obfuscation we were enjoying. Salem’s witches are still here and they’re pretty good at Ableton.

> Next, Sh’Diah grows from an autotuned prayer – ‘Just calm down (calm down) / And she’ll find time for the Lord’ – into a yearning saxophone riff/rift. But, alas, RABi, the album’s final song, returns us to a blues guitar and Vernon’s vocals. If the oscillation between past and future throughout i,i was a dialectic, the depressing outcome is ‘consumer capitalism’s model of ordinariness’ (Fisher) of the neoliberal present. As in Fisher’s hauntology, the technologically-infused creativity of i,i is a lost future. Watching Vernon being interviewed feels like this. He’s got the Pacific-North-West hipster look: vegan but drives a V6 truck. Goes to the craft brewer’s bar and talks about that latest public health campaign to encourage men to talk about mental health over a pint but refrains from actually talking about depression. (Maybe serving beer in 2/3rd schooners means you never end up getting to the important part of the conversation?)

> But why does it matter? Because it’s about political and cultural (and creative) imagination. Fisher’s last big, and tragically but appropriately unfinished, philosophy is that of Acid Communism. Maybe there is a future !

> Fisher mourned not only the flattening of pop music, but also the ‘culture constellated around music (fashion, discourse, cover art)’. In contrast to a digital album which you never perceive in any physical manner, Bon Iver have emphasised various forms of art in their work, ensuring a communal creativity. There are multiple iterations of the album cover art on public posters and on social media. More excitingly though, is the collaboration with WHITEvoid, a Berlin-based sculpture group/company, which is discussed on Autumn. Prepared for live performances, WHITEvoid have constructed an ensemble of floating mirrors and kinetic lighting made from ‘space-age metal’ and motion tracking sensors. An artistic contribution as ethereal and tech-enhanced as the accompanying music and one which aestheticises our material sciences. The lighting provided by WHITEvoid in collaboration with the experimentation in sound system, similarly shown on Autumn, constructs the performance of i,i as an ongoing innovation and experimentation. The effort put into the upcoming live performances of i,i ensure that it is a music to be experienced not merely consumed. In another discussion on Autumn, Michael Brown, Bon Iver’s Artistic Director, says ‘you have to be in the moment with other people, you have to be able to know that the person next to you is having the same communal experience’.

> In Krisis (2018:2), Matt Colquhoun sees acid communism as a “project beyond the pleasure principle” (2) and of an “experimental” politics. If the sounds of i,i are hauntological, then the spectre it suggests is one of acid communism. The acid is provided by its accompanying artistic experimentation and the communism is its emphasis on the political and the communal.


Text: William Fleming

Published 30/8/19


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