Debut ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was winter; the self-titled second album spring and glitchy, electronic ‘22, A Million’ summer, with ‘i, i’ taking the last place as autumn. It was a neat way of tying together four genre-spanning albums, all rooted in Vernon’s expansive song-writing and soaring melodies – but didn’t immediately open the door to the possibility of new music.
‘PDLIF’, short for ‘Please Don’t Live In Fear’, is the first new release since then, and heralds the dawn of a new season of music. With its artwork labelled ‘Bon Iver: Season 5, Episode 1’, the song has been released to support health workers fighting coronavirus on the frontline, with all proceeds going to Direct Relief (a non-profit that aids those in poverty or emergency situations).
Based on a sample taken from British jazz-folk artist Alabaster dePlume’s song ‘Visit Croatia’, ‘PDLIF’ was recorded at Vernon’s April Base studio, and then sent digitally to each of the song’s contributors. The musicians involved – that include long-time collaborator producer BJ Burton, producer Jim-E Stack and pow-wow singer Joseph K Rainey, Sr. – then added their parts from afar.
It’s filled with unabashed hope. Opening with simple chords to put full focus on the vocals, Vernon sings: “Please don’t live in fear / We can’t see from here right now / Send it off from here / And free your mind”, easing the anxieties of panicked listeners. Later guest American singer-songwriter Kacy Hill offers the sage couplet: “You know it never stays the same / And they will never tell you you’re all to blame”. Vernon adds with honesty: “While I’m not gonna tell you that everyone’s safe / I will say… / There will be a better day”. It’s a defiant show of faith in the weird new normal of the world.
Like ‘i,i’, ‘PDLIF’ incorporates elements of Bon Iver’s previous albums. The whirring electronic production that permeated ’22, A Million’ is apparent, while the slow-burning structure and relaxed tempo hark back to ‘Beth/Rest’ (from ‘Bon Iver’). And there’s the ringing piano, that was a staple of ‘i,i’, which acts as a powerful accompaniment to the positive lyrics.
It’s understandably a scary time at the moment; but on ‘PDLIF’ Justin Vernon aims to relieve the collective unease of the nation. It’s natural to feel nervous – but let Bon Iver soothe you, if only for three minutes.