Release Date: Aug 9, 2019
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Previous Bon Iver albums worked through the seasons, the hushed 'For Emma, Forever Ago' representing winter. With 'i, i', Justin Vernon arrives at autumn, a time of change “And now, it might be Autumn." Those were the words included in a video teasing Bon Iver's fourth album 'i, i'. The clip revealed that each previous album has been related to a season: the stunning, award-winning debut 'For Emma, Forever Ago' was winter; the lush, self-titled second record spring; and the glitchy, experimental '22, A Million’ was summer.
At the very end of their stunning All Points East appearance earlier in the summer, Bon Iver unveiled new material from 'i.i' with an understated confidence. Quite literally leaving fans with the songs, the vast speakers imparted ‘Hey Ma’ and ‘Man (U Like)’, both brimming with the characteristic sultry melody of Justin Vernon's early solo material, an apparent step away from the overt electronic experimentation of the band's previous effort. Having left his fabled isolation in the past, Justin has spent over a decade reinventing his sound with help of an ever-changing backing of musicians.
Bon Iver has always been Justin Vernon's escape route. After retreating to the woods of Wisconsin to record For Emma, Forever Ago, he drew a surrealist roadmap of the United States on Bon Iver, depicting a fantastical world where the lived, the dreamed, and desired coexisted. When this invented land felt oppressive and the anxiety of facing it too overwhelming, Vernon retreated again and burrowed within himself, pulverizing his voice with machines to create 22, A Million, a record that dramatized the fracturing of the self.
Every daemon decoded, every day de-numbered A note about Bon Iver's song titles. There's been more silly griping about the Aphex Twin impenetrable thing than was perhaps necessary - I am as guilty of this as any of us - but it struck me listening to "iMi" and realising what those letters meant that there's a straightforward reason for all that crypticism. Justin Vernon wants to confuse and disarm your higher thinking so his music will go straight to the heart, which is the place from where he wants you to hear it. As such, for all i,i's initial chaos, there are shockingly simple axes on which these songs turn.
There's some music that when you hear it for the first time, it feels like it's always been around, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether. Other albums are so revolutionary that when you first hear them, they sparkle with newness, and your ears are constantly perked up by a new sound or lyric or subtle touch, and this uniqueness melts into warmth over time, a familiarity (Radiohead is the best and most successful example of this). Over the past couple of albums, Bon Iver falls into a whole other category, where the music is so unrecognizable that on each listen it feels like being shocked all over again.
2008's For Emma, Forever Ago painted a bleak winter, the eponymous follow-up evoked a frenzied spring, and 22, A Million found Bon Iver in the full bloom of summer. We now approach autumn in the world of Bon Iver , a new season that doesn't arrive without its own set of chaos. Introduced by "Yi" and sharply followed by "iMi", both tracks are illustrated by a daunting and echoing radio static which carries the distorted vocals on its burdened shoulders.
It seems time to acknowledge, Bon Iver will go down as legendary. As easy a target for parody Justin Vernon and co. often make, whether for the whole log cabin thing, by Justin Timberlake on SNL, the absurd song titles of 22, A Million, you name it, the fact remains: these guys make some gorgeous music. What's more, painful earnestness be damned, they've consistently been determined to forge ever forward.
Like others in the ‘mopey vanilla’ school of indie-folk, especially Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver have always threatened to become the boring caricature of mid-2000s soundtrack rock that people who don’t care for them have always accused them of being. On new, unfortunately titled album i,i, Justin Vernon has succumbed to his most inane impulses – and released a selection of unseasoned, lightly scented pleasantries that neither hit or miss. They just are.
A pparently, i,i completes a seasonal quartet of Bon Iver albums, starting with the wintry confessions of 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago and ending now, in autumn. Yet i,i has a brighter, more optimistic and open feel than its "summer" predecessor 22, a Million, with its often impenetrable numerology, distorted Yeezus beats and gutpunch bass. What remains from past seasons is Heavenly Father's digital gospel, and a little of 00000 Million's acoustic directness.
"When the sun starts to set, what happens is you start gaining perspective. And then you can put that perspective into more honest, generous work," says Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver's first record since 2016. A seasonal cycle that began with the heart-sick winter of 'For Emma', moving through 'Bon Iver' and '22, A Million', arrives at a conclusion here, in the self-proclaimed autumn of 'i, i'.