Bon Iver ‘i,i’ – Review

23 Aug

It’s easy to forget how popular Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was a decade ago. He was interviewed by Jimmy Fallon on his late night show and parodied by Justin Timberlake on SNL. He won Grammys. Kanye West called him his favourite living artist and said, brilliantly, ‘I love him the way Kanye loves Kanye.’ In the years since he’s collaborated with West as well as Nas, Chance the Rapper and James Blake. Regrettably, dozens of auto-tuned warblers with pitchy falsettos followed in Bon Iver’s wake, unable to replicate ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’s strange, mythic despair. As Chris Deville memorably put it – “if everyone who heard ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ formed a band, everyone who heard ‘For Emma’ grew a beard.” Vernon has spent much of the past decade retreating away from his signature sound and doing his damnedest to become something close to inimitable. 

So it is that Bon Iver has shifted from an insular, personal project in to a deeply collaborative one. More and more Justin Vernon has sought to move the focus away from himself. Fourth album ‘i,i’ truly sounds like the work of a community of artists. Both musically and thematically it elaborates on the idea of giving yourself over to another person, and embracing everything that comes with that sacrifice. Vernon is liberated by the idea of giving up control. A duality is extended from the title, ‘i,i’, to the way that songs seem to couple up, almost like call and response – one posing questions the other seeks to answer.

On ‘i,i’ the band capitalise on the anthemic sensibilities that have always lurked slightly under the surface. The album is brimming with arena sized chants and positive affirmations that feel designed to be sung back by gigantic audiences. In the opening verse Vernon sings ‘on a bright fall morning I’m with it/I stood a little while within it’ before affirming ‘I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM’.  At the album’s end he says ‘sunlight feels good now don’t it?’ These are unadorned, relatively straightforward lyrics that feel empowering and reassuring. There is a euphoric vibe to the record that puts it at odds with the restrained reputation Bon Iver have developed. What’s striking here is how many of the songs grab and shake you. ‘Hey Ma’ is by some distance the most moving song Bon Iver have put out in years, and also the most accessible. There is a strong melodic hook that appears where you expect it, then repeats; in Bon Iver’s world, that is something of a rarity. ‘Imi’, ‘Naeem’ and ‘Faith’ are similarly emphatic. They rise and fall in unexpected ways but always find a moment to emotionally crush you.

Occasionally though this lends to the impression that you’re being fed empty emotional calories. If you’ve ever felt seen by Bon Iver then even the sound of Vernon’s falsetto is enough to prang at your heartstrings. Is it just the ghost of an old feeling? Line to line, the songs present as fragments or pinches of conversation and thought. They can often be beguiling. They can sometimes be infuriating. Of course words don’t have to make mental sense if they make emotional sense. Oasis for one built a career out of gobbledygook, and Bon Iver are almost singularly adept at making nonsense feel like everything. I mean, take that song ‘Hey Ma’: ‘Full time you talk your money up, while it’s living in a coal mine/tall time, to call your ma, hey ma, hey ma.’ What does this really mean? It’s ludicrous on the face of it. But there’s little doubt it makes you feel something. Maybe you latch on to a word, maybe you hear something beyond them. Bon Iver capitalise on the power of music to take you past logic and rationality.

Those yearning for the simple, honest sound of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ will take some comfort from ‘Marion’, a plain-spoken, acoustic ballad that meditates vaguely on the idea of understanding. Two lines get repeated over and over till the message becomes a kind of mantra. ‘I thought that this was half a love/follow to the rising sea.’ ‘Faith’, another song that throws back to the classic sound, continues in this vein. The song is full of hard realisation and reluctant acceptance. We find lyrics like ‘I shouldn’t hide’, ‘there is no design’, ‘it’s time to be brave’, ‘I know it’s lonely in the dark’ and ‘so what if I lose, I’m satisfied’. For a guy who famously took himself out in to the woods to write an album about the kind of despair there’s often no coming back from, these statements feel almost revelatory. 

‘i,i’ is an impressive culmination of a decade’s worth of experimentation. It connects various threads; from ‘For Emma’s acoustic questioning to the self titled album’s post-rock wonder and ‘22, a Million’s glitchy restlessness. It puts everything else In to perspective and acts as an accessible entry point in to a discography that has been consistently fascinating from the beginning.

8/10

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