Published on March 26th, 2022

Justin Vernon by Raph

Now might be an awkward time to be palling around with Kanye West, and maybe Justin Vernon, founder and frontman of the indie folk collective Bon Iver, saw the crackup coming.

These two avatars of personal struggle — midwesterners both, but as different as their genres — joined forces in 2010 with “Monster,” an all-star rap jam led by West with muted vocals from Vernon, and “Lost in the World, a digitized Kanye lament containing a more recognizable version of Vernon’s wounded falsetto. They hung out and spoke fondly of one another, the restless rap polymath and the mournful troubadour. (Rick Ross, Miami’s own, thought Vernon was just some “hippy motherfucker” West had flown in.) They teamed again in 2016 and 2019 for collaborations overseen by pop-soul symphonist Frances Farewell Starlite.

And then it was over. Vernon, a Bernie Sanders supporter, told Pitchfork that West’s rightward political turn had made things difficult. West, for his part, has become a figure of concern in pandemic times, his old married home life falling apart publicly as his work turns more indecipherable.

And Vernon? Though no stranger to inner demons, he’s back on tour partly in support of “I,I” a Bon Iver album released in mid-2019. In a way, he’s taking West with him. Like 2016’s “22, A Million,” before it, “I,I” showcases the continued expansion of Vernon’s repertoire and range into places that would have been unlikely without that alliance. Bon Iver are openly indebted to West and to black music in general. Where once there were vintage resonator guitars, now there is Auto-Tune and ghostly D’Angelo harmonies.

Bon Iver post-Kanye are still Bon Iver — that’s a banjo plinking in between the gospel-choir layers of Vernon’s own all-star single, 2020’s “AUATC.” But listening to that or the glorious acid yacht rock reflux of “Sh’Diah,” it’s clear that West tapping Vernon helped him to become better at his art. Maybe someday Vernon can return the favor.

Bon Iver with special guest Dijon play 7:30pm Friday April 15 at FPL Solar Amphitheater at Bayfront Park in Miami. ~ Sean Piccoli