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Bon Iver's 'i,i' Is Justin Vernon at His Most Alive

The ambitious fourth LP from the Wisconsin artist's band is the thrilling culmination of his career so far.

by Josh Terry
Aug 9 2019, 11:00am

Justin Vernon's Bon Iver origin story is already unlikely enough. His debut 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago came about from when he was at his lowest, retreating to his father's Wisconsin cabin after his band broke up, his relationship dissolved, and illness took over. The solitude resulted in one of the most evocative and affecting folk albums of the 2000s, and it sold over half a million copies. Its initial lightning-in-a-bottle success was already gobsmacking, but to see Vernon's outlet evolve from desolate, wintry folk, Grammy-winning soft rock on his 2011 follow-up Bon Iver, to 2016's 22, A Million and its fragmented and numerologically-minded electronics, and now a wonderful and ambitious synthesis on his stunning latest full-length i,i is even more striking.

It hasn't just been Bon Iver. Following the band's stratospheric ascent, Vernon's creative resume over the past 12 or so years has been staggering. He's split time in other bands like rockers the Shouting Matches, his on-and-off experimental project Volcano Choir, and his collaborative outlet with The National's Aaron Dessner in Big Red Machine. He's produced albums from artists as disparate as the Blind Boys of Alabama and English band the Staves. He started his own music festival in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He's also worked frequently with Bruce Hornsby, who described Vernon as follows to the New York Times: "a soul singer who creates these unique and beautiful sonic landscapes on which to perform.” He's even helped on several hip-hop songs from artists like Lizzo, Vince Staples, Travis Scott, and more, but his most frequent partner is Kanye West, who once called Vernon his "favorite living artist." He's done this all by eschewing any modicum of celebrity; even the press photos for this new LP obscure his face.

Though Bon Iver's musical evolution doesn't seem predictable or even logical (just imagine time-traveling to 2008 to show a "Skinny Love" fan the herky-jerky bloops of 2019 "10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄"), i,i is the culmination of Vernon's whims and inspirations throughout his career. In fact, his surprise-released fourth album completes a season-inspired series. As a press release explains, "from the winter of For Emma, Forever Ago came the frenetic spring of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the unhinged summer of 22, A Million. Now, fall arrives early with i,i." The LP ties the band's disparate threads together. Though not as abrasive as it got in 2016, structure-averse electronics unfurl across "Holyfields," the smooth and expansive arrangements of Bon Iver come through on the sax-laden "Sh'Diah," and even the rustic acoustics of For Emma are found in "Marion." Even though i,i constantly challenges and tweaks Vernon's formula, it's still familiar and welcoming.

Far from the beer-and-Northern Exposure-filled cabin loneliness of his first album, i,i is warm and chock full of collaborators. A cursory glance at the credits show names like Bruce Hornsby, Moses Sumney, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner—all of whom appear on the same song "U (Man Like)"—as well as surprising additions like producer Wheezy (who guests on "We" and highlight "iMi" with James Blake). Vernon described the environment in the studio in the press materials, "the sense of community around the record grew through honest, generous inspiration within the group of artists involved in the creative process of the record." This is probably why i,i feels so inviting. The band's palette throughout is bright and colorful, boasting heavily-textured arrangements like the buoyant, twinkling synths on "Salem" or the mesh of acoustic plucking, horns, and vocoder on "iMi."

Many of the songs came about via Come Through, Vernon's collaboration with Minnesota's TU Dance ensemble that was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. When Vernon and the dance troupe toured the highly choreographed 75-minute piece, he honed early versions of album cuts "Jelmore," "Naeem" and "Marion" in the set. He's stated, "TU Dance is woven itself into the fabric of Bon Iver now ... in this album and in Come Through and future everything together." Because of this, there's a physicality to the songs that make the album feel like Vernon's most alive collection so far. Anchored by his booming voice, "Naeem" bursts with kinetic urgency from striking piano chords as he belts lines like "Well I can't be angry long / We burnt up in my bed."

Vernon's lyrics have always been impressionistic. His earliest songs at Bon Iver found their resonance in his soulful, falsetto-heavy delivery (remember how hard "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon" hit?). Here is no different, but his concerns are as outward as they are personal on i,i. A generous reading of the slow-burning "Jelmore" finds him cryptically evoking the impending doom of climate change with lines like "How long / Will you disregard this heat?" and "We'll all be gone by the fall." On highlight "U (Man Like)," the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Vernon wonder, "How much caring is there of some American love / When there's lovers sleeping in your streets?"

After Vernon announced the LP, a cryptic trailer dropped called "Sincerity Is Forever In Season." That title is the defining sentiment throughout the hopeful i,i, an album that prioritizes kindness and empathy over fear of impending doom. Songs like "Faith" are positively ecstatic, with Vernon jubilantly yelling uplifting lyrics like "Time and again / It's time to be brave" and "And we have to know that faith declines / I'm not all out of mine." It's a hope that wasn't as pronounced in his previous efforts but here, especially on closer "RABi" feels all-encompassing. He sings, "So what of this release? / Some life feels good now, don't it?" With the season cycle complete, Vernon closes a chapter in Bon Iver's arc. Considering how Vernon's has been so unexpected, there's no surprise off the table for what's to come next.