Album Review: Bon Iver - i,i
Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver has always been driven by progress. His 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago began in minimalist isolation, rarely straying from the core combination of Vernon’s voice and acoustic guitar. Four years later, the self-titled sophomore album expanded into a more grandiose and atmospheric sound, propelled by a host of brass performers mixed elegantly into the compositions. Then, following several collaborations with hip-hop innovator Kanye West, Vernon released the audaciously experimental 22, A Million. Tearing apart everything we’d come to expect from Bon Iver, Vernon reconstructed something remarkable and abstract, held together with wild electronic glue and earning comparisons to Radiohead’s Kid A. Three years after that and Vernon is back with the bizarrely titled i,i (‘i comma i’), surprise-released 22 days ahead of schedule. Whilst it’s certainly no regression, i,i finds Vernon in a new place, stepping back rather than moving forward. If 22, A Million was Vernon’s Kid A, then i,i is his In Rainbows, an exquisite consolidation of everything Bon Iver has been over the past 12 years.
Vernon has dialled down the glitchiness of 22, A Million but maintained that album’s collage-like approach to songwriting. Compositions are stitched together like patchwork, complementing and contrasting each other in ingenious sonic mosaics. The ethereal strings on Holyfields, wrap around jittering synths, whilst crashing drums encircle the distorted bass synth on Faith, violently vibrating beneath heavenly guitar picks. However, the vocals are the real area of interest this time. Whilst 22, A Million saw Vernon contorting his own voice with abandon, i,i shows a greater appreciation for the voices of others. iMi, for example, features contributions from James Blake, whilst U (Man Like) switches between the vocals of Vernon, Bruce Hornsby and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in one exhilarating verse. The spirit of collaboration woven together here is a far cry from the lonesomeness of For Emma and it’s a fitting accompaniment to a track railing against toxic masculinity, a “song to every bad man, as a man, with love” as Vernon puts it in the liner notes.
Throughout all the musical wizardry, Vernon maintains his ability to convey moods with overwhelming potency. i,i takes the listener on a passionate emotional odyssey,– Nathan Brooks
What’s most remarkable about i,i is how skilfully Vernon incorporates all of Bon Iver’s manifold back catalogue of sounds. There aren’t many tracks you can simply say are For Emma songs or 22, A Million songs; every Bon Iver has a part to play. We is underpinned by abrasive electronica reminiscent of 22, A Million but horns harking back to the self-titled uplift the track in its lighter moments. Marion opens with the classic For Emma vocal/acoustic guitar duo but subtle dashings of horns and strings soon encase the song in a warmer backdrop. Vernon has labelled i,i an autumn album, with the previous three albums representing winter, spring and summer respectively. This is the perfect season to describe i,i, drawing from the rest of the year whilst forming a distinct identity that isn’t tethered to its predecessors. The luxurious, elegiac saxophone solo that draws the penultimate track Sh’Diah to a close is a perfect example of this, something new born out of something familiar.
Having spent the last three albums in a state of growth and change, there’s something beautiful about the way Vernon feels settled on this album– Nathan Brooks
Throughout all the musical wizardry, Vernon maintains his ability to convey moods with overwhelming potency. i,i takes the listener on a passionate emotional odyssey, beginning with the tentative, garbled vocals that open iMi and ending with something resembling confidence or contentment on the shimmering RABi. Along the way, Vernon guides us through sinister lows – such as the droning electronica track Jelmore – and soaring highs, exemplified by the triumphant gospel force of Naeem. Salem is quite the rollercoaster within itself, breezily strolling through (relatively) understated verses and burgeoning majestically into monumental choruses. Vernon also taps into nostalgia on lead single Hey Ma, the album’s most straightforward moment that, beneath all its cryptic lyricism, appears to be an ode to the simple love of a parent. Vernon moves through all of this at a masterfully crafted pace, perfectly timing crescendos and diminuendos to grip us to the journey we’re on with him.
Every song on i,i was released alongside a lyric video. I know, I can feel your eyes rolling, but these aren’t the usual slapdash jobs artists release before the music video is finished. The experimental typography, surreal visuals and cathartic choreography perfectly compliment the music and I’d highly recommend giving the album a listen alongside these videos. Given Vernon’s tendency to warp vocals they also provide a handy insight into what he’s actually singing. As we’ve come to expect from Vernon, being able to understand what the words are doesn’t necessarily illuminate what they mean. But amidst the oblique and fragmented writing are some moments of striking directness. The most tender of these comes at the end of iMi, when Vernon states “I like you, and that ain’t nothing new”. Having spent the last three albums in a state of growth and change, there’s something beautiful about the way Vernon feels settled on this album, comfortable enough to let us in on such a simple, cheerful confession. It might disappoint some that this isn’t another drastic sonic leap but I think it demonstrates that there’s value in reflection as rich as innovation. In other words, i,i is magnificent.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Bon Iver – i,i
i,i is the perfect conclusion to a masterful series of albums, a sublime synthesis of everything that’s defined Bon Iver since Justin Vernon first hid away in that fabled hunting cabin.