Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “We,” “Hey, Ma,” “Faith,” “Naeem,” “Jelmore”
Though you wouldn’t know from the sweltering August heat, Fall has arrived early this year. Following global listening parties for his latest release i,i, Justin Vernon decided to release (most of) his latest Bon Iver album on all digital platforms three weeks before it was scheduled to officially drop. In an early press release for the album, Vernon stated that the band’s three previous releases are representative of a particular season: Winter for their debut FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO, Spring for their sophomore effort BON IVER, BON IVER, and Summer for 22, A MILLION. This seasonal cycle comes full circle with the autumnal i,i, quite possibly Bon Iver’s biggest and fullest sounding record to date.
I was personally taken by surprise when a couple friends texted me in early June to let me know that the band had dropped a pair of new tracks, as I had fallen off the Bon Iver bandwagon during 22, A MILLION. (Even after relistening to it a couple times to prep for this review, I still don’t really care for it.) I was hesitant to listen to “Hey, Ma” and “U” that summer morning, though the song titles were more easily pronounceable than those on their previous effort—would I be let down by more aggressively glitchy, Auto-Tune-drenched tracks? Fortunately, I was greeted by a warm blend of synths, subtle electronic accents, and smooth vocals that recalled the soundscapes of the earlier records I knew and loved, with some slight sonic upgrades. I was back in, and I was stoked.
Album intro “Yi,” which for some reason was the only track that was not initially released early, is a combination of studio banter and sporadic static noise that is quickly repurposed in the opening measures of “iMi.” The song carries major James Blake (he is one of 10 credited writers on the track) and Dirty Projectors influence, tastefully combining the electronic elements of 22, A MILLION with the live instrumentation that characterized the band’s first two releases. As the song progresses, Vernon layers in additional vocals tracks until we are treated to the explosion of a full Justin Vernon choir. Follow-up “We” is a much darker, moodier groove, and has slight echoes of the self-titled album’s second track “Minnesota.” Sprinkled with subtle vocal tracks buried in the mix, the track never feels busy, one of the few on the album that comes to an abrupt end that had me longing for more before the controlled chaos is foiled by the sparseness of “Holyfields,” which finds Vernon balancing his soothing baritone and reaching falsetto over simplistic bouncing synths and strings.
Lead single “Hey, Ma” would have sounded right at home on the self-titled record; if one were to attempt to analyze Vernon’s lyrics (which can be very tricky given his tendency to make up words, create new pronunciations of words you think you know, and get creative with punctuation in general), they may be able to uncover warnings of climate change and the importance of protecting Mother (Ma) Earth, but I’m not going to try to do that here. There’s always been a beauty in the incoherent poetry of Bon Iver’s lyrics. One minute you are gifted with the straightforward tenderness of a line such as “I like you, and that ain’t nothin’ new” before being smacked with “I fall off a bass boat […] I’m havin’ a bad, bad toke.”
The latter of the lines comes from album highlight “Naeem.” The track builds from Vernon’s voice and a lone piano before layering in additional vocals, synths, and rolling percussion. The longest track on the record at over four minutes, it features the most emotional vocal delivery on i,i, the chorus infectiously catchy and sure to be a highlight on the group’s upcoming fall arena tour. While one of the album’s biggest strengths is its ability to successfully combine the best elements of Bon Iver’s catalogue as a whole, some of i,i’s standout tracks would not have sounded out of place on the group’s previous records. Just as “Hey Ma” recalled textures of the self-titled release, “Jelmore” brings Vernon’s electronic tendencies that were the focus of 22, A MILLION to the forefront, with choppy, stunted synth textures, while the sparse acoustics of “Marion” recalls the stripped down simplicity of FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO. The culmination of everything that is sonically great about Bon Iver can be found in the epically huge sounds of songs like “Faith” or “Salem.”
The album ends on a reflective note with the tracks “Sh’diah” (an abbreviation for Shittiest Day in American History) and “RABi.” The former is a solemn contemplation of the day following the last presidential election, carried over soft keys, gentle percussion, and a powerful saxophone outro from regular Vernon collaborator Michael Lewis. Vernon has stated that the somber vibes of the music on the track are his favorite on the record, and they speak more to the subject matter than his simplistic and mostly vague lyrics, and that’s just fine. Album closer “RABi” is a solid send-off, built around simple guitar, and finds Vernon simultaneously reminiscing and looking forward while lyrically tracing how our perspectives change as we grow older. While there may be some discomfort in acknowledging that things are not as we may have anticipated them in our youth, Vernon softly reminds us that “nothing is gonna ease your mind / well it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway.” The idea of balancing our awareness of the flaws around us with with an acceptance of the flaws we cannot change complements Bon Iver’s attempts to balance the various sonic components and sounds they have explored throughout their discography.
While there are heavy topics and conflicts explored on i,i, the album feels like a celebration of everything Bon Iver have achieved thus far. It may lack the boldly obvious experimentation of 22, A MILLION, but it finds Vernon and company successfully honing in on what they do best.