In times when sincerity is not only scary, but scarce, Justin Vernon remains throughly committed to the idea. From the first chords on For Emma, Forever Ago, his first album as Bon Iver, he’s given us nothing less than his entire heart, unvarnished, and without pretension. With the first lines of “Flume,” Vernon introduced himself in relation to his mother: “I am my mother’s only one / It’s enough.” It’s a telling invocation—sincerity, for Vernon, has always been linked to close relationships, and to his mother, in particular. Vernon found grander arrangements in the crystal landscapes of Bon Iver, but maintained the same seriousness in his affect. Critics balked at the Bruce Hornsby-indebted ‘80s-era pomp of “Beth/Rest,” which Vernon has defended on multiple occasions. “I don’t want it to be some ’80s throwback song,” he told NPR. “I want it to be a current, I-get-lost-in-this song, and I love everything about it.”
“Hey, Ma,” picks up where “Flume” left off, straight-faced and humble, with an ode to the mother invoked so early in the Bon Iver canon. A blush of shimmering chords signals a rejection of the sepulchral, electronic detritus that defined his last album 22, A Million, though Vernon borrows a certain metronomic tension from “666 ʇ” in the slow, digital pulse running throughout the track. Vernon opens in his lower register: “I waited outside / I took it remote / I wanted a bath / Tell the story or he goes.” What begins as a paean to childhood soon morphs into adolescent disaffection. A line like “I was tokin’ on dope,” in the hands of any other artist, would conjure a note of self-consciousness; here, there’s only confession.
By the third verse, an older Vernon seeks reassurance: “I waited outside / Then you took me in the room / And you offered up the truth / My eyes crawling up the window to the wall.” And through it all, his mother, “back and forth with light.” That light is palpable in the resonant squeaks of the production, as comforting a presence as Vernon’s. The verse-chorus structure, much closer to conventional rock or pop than most of Bon Iver’s recent output, is a perfect choice for a song so unabashedly earnest. Gone are the labyrinthine verses of 22, A Million, the symbology that crowds and obscures. “Hey, Ma” is all love and light, with Vernon’s radical sincerity at the fore.