Bon Iver: i,i review – Meandering songs that unwind over time
Who ever could have predicted that a heartbroken twentysomething with an acoustic guitar, rudimentary recording equipment and access to his dad’s log cabin in rural Wisconsin could have made such a momentous impact on popular music?
When Justin Vernon released For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007, his tender storytelling style would go on to spawn a thousand soundalikes, a Saturday Night Live parody and eventually, a career that has taken unexpected twists over the last 12 years.
We’re willing to wager a large sum of money, for example, that Vernon would never have foreseen a collaboration with Kanye West three years later.
In those early days, Vernon’s backstory was key. The log cabin, the “bearded lumberjack” style, the pseudonym that no one was (perhaps still is?) quite sure to pronounce; the songs were good, sure, but fans were also buying into the romantic mythology.
As a result – or perhaps as a reaction to – that pigeonholing, Vernon’s career has already separated into two distinct eras. For Emma, Forever Ago is now almost a quirky acoustic footnote in his increasingly experimental history. 2011’s Grammy-winning Bon Iver saw him flesh out both his sound and his band to thrilling effect, while 2016’s 22, A Million was such a stylistic about-turn that it drew parallels with Radiohead’s Kid A. With processed vocals, the use of samples and a reliance on synths, it was in turns an admirable yet inscrutable listen – exasperatingly jarring and enjoyably challenging all at once.
Now Vernon, already elevated to musical deity status by a hardcore fanbase, arrives at album number four. Instead of continuing down the avant-garde avenue instigated by his last record, however, he has pulled back on the wackiness. That said, there is still a sense of adventure to i,i – particularly considering there are more than 30 musicians featured here (James Blake, The Staves, The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bruce Hornsby among them.) Both We and standout track Hey, Ma have a subtle hip-hop cadence. The harmonies of iMi, provided by Camilla Stave and Minneapolis musician Velvet Negroni, are beautiful. The joyfully collaborative nature of the piano-led U (Man Like) is undeniably enjoyable, while the blurry electronic wheeze of Jelmore and the sax solo of Sh’Diah are pleasingly unexpected. In fact, much of i,i is rewarded by repeated listens revealing subtleties that are inaudible amid the initial hazy wash of sound – like the strings of Holyfields, the intense build of Naeem, the soft strum of Faith.
At times, however, it sounds like Vernon’s ambition gets the better of him. That’s never more apparent than on his lyric sheet, which ranges from “impenetrable” (“There’s no anorberic dream/ Far as I know, I tried too hard to see”) to “nonsensical” (“And if I know one thing at all, is I cannot just be a peach”) to plain “terrible” (“The dawn is rising/ But the land ain’t rising”.)
There are some vague allusions to politics here and there but they feel tokenistic, while the bounteous vocal ad-libs simply come across as lazy filler. On those occasions, the multiple references to “toking” make a lot more sense.
Vernon has described i,i as the autumn to the winter, spring and summer of his previous albums, which sounds about right; these are meandering songs that unwind over time, like a bonfire gradually dissipating or a forest slowly losing its foliage. Those prone to hyperbole have already erroneously declared him as a visionary, a legend of his time. For everyone else, it’s going to take a bit more convincing than this album.