Beginning with its freshman release, For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s songs have oscillated between ephemeral surrealism and emotional specificity. At times, the band’s lyrics are poignant; more often though, they are borderline inaccessible. Throughout Bon Iver’s three albums, cryptology has remained the group’s currency. And the band continues to spend it frantically with the release of its latest single, “Faith.”
Fancying himself something of a philosopher hermit, frontman and songwriter Justin Vernon has consistently retreated to rural American landscapes to produce lyrics overstuffed with symbolism and angst. That said, many of the band’s songs have been infused with religious, and often Christian, motifs; a few songs even quote from the book of Psalms.
Throughout, Vernon has maintained a spiritually earnest-but-ambivalent stance: “I find God/And religion, too/Staying at the Ace Hotel/If the calm would allow” (“33 ‘God’”). Lines like these highlight the undulating doubt that sweeps consistently through Vernon’s work.
Not surprisingly, there’s a hint of irony in the latest track’s title, “Faith.” Doubt and insecurity plague the song’s prayerlike plea for transcendent meaning. Still, the lyrics can’t help but suggest a mysterious union with something beyond the self. They’re packed with rich metaphors, and I can’t help but wonder what’s buried beneath the words.
“Faith” opens with a raw reflection upon the “wonderful things I’ve learned to waste.” There’s remorse over the fact that “I shoulda known, that I shouldn’t hide/To compromise and to covet all what’s inside.” Vernon regrets his attempt to cloak thoughts and desires that have held him captive for too long.
The next lines seem to ponder clinging to faith apart from obvious evidence: “There is no design, you’ll have to decide/If you’ll come to know if I’m the faithful kind.” But what exactly is he faithful to? Is it himself? Some higher power? Or is it just another empty symbol? Whatever the answers to those questions, “Faith” suggests a relationship between what we believe and how we see the world: “Fold your hands into mine/I did my believing/Seeing every time.”
We also hear Vernon’s determination to sift through life to find meaning in it: “Time to be brave/Content to the phrases/That at dawn, we ain’t mazes.” Reflection, he suggests, births a need for further self-discovery. For Vernon, that process remains unfinished. He’s still under construction—and perhaps always will be.
An accompanying lyric video plumbs the depths further for transcendent meaning. In a hazy, hallucinatory sequence, flashing stick figures move rapidly across the screen as lyrics appear then disappear. Halfway through the track, the strobing sticks transform into two dancers in a wooded landscape. The duo dances together for the remainder of the track, amidst the band’s crooning sounds.
Referencing the past, Vernon again voices something like a wistful longing for a faith he can’t quite cling to: “It’s not knowing the road I’d known as a child of God/Nor to become stable/(So what if I lose, I’m satisfied).” Startlingly, Vernon seems to conclude that if he ultimately discovers doubts about God were incorrect, he will still be satisfied with finally having an answer to his spiritual questions.
In posing rhetorical questions such as, “Am I dependent in what I’m defending?/And do we get to know what faith provides?” Vernon again juxtaposes doubt and belief, with no real resolution of the tension between the two.
That said, the song’s final stanza concludes with a pivot toward hesitant optimism: “I know it’s lonely in the dark/And this year’s a visitor/And we have to know that faith declines/I’m not all out of mine.” It’s interesting that the song ends with a return to faith in light of the lyrics’ less-than-certain outlook on the possibility of something worth believing.
Of Bon Iver’s album 22, A Million, Justin Vernon said: “Let’s have a s—load of symbols.” That album, like its predecessors, certainly contains an overabundance of symbols, many of which are indecipherable to a casual listener. “Faith” follows in the same vein. There is a sense that Vernon desperately wants the empty moments and symbols found on this track to be filled by something, by anything.
Yet, it seems that Vernon doesn’t know what that “thing” is quite yet. And it’s not clear from this song, at least, when such truth and meaning might emerge for him. The impulse to ponder these existential questions is an admirable one. But definitive spiritual answers to the deep questions that “Faith” poses are opaque at best, indecipherable at worst.