Bon Iver ‘i,i’: Justin Vernon Further Abandons Convention With Deconstructed Earthly Musings
Justin Vernon is ever the eccentric artist, with a career history that runs like tales of yore about musicians seeking inspiration and acting on it in the most outlandish ways. For his first album as frontman and visionary of Bon Iver, 2007’s “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he went to the woods, Walden style, and wrote songs gazing at oaks. In years since, his music has retained this aesthetic, always sounding free and rustic, even when it’s soaked in Auto-tune and segmented with electronic glitches. The unique composite sound is one that demands attention in the way that parody-ready, avant leaning indie artists often do, with flashes of brilliance interspersed with flashes of farce. Bon Iver’s albums have generally grown more cryptic over time, and 2016’s “22, A Million,” understandable enough, has given way to the latest work, “i,i.” A title like that flaunts the freedom of an established indie darling, and the music is as you might expect from that freedom. It’s admirably bold and unconstrained in its stylistic wanderings, but this occasionally leads to seemingly aimless quandaries that prioritize novelty over anything else. At any rate, it’s an interesting listen, politically charged, and with all Vernon’s characteristic flair.
The opener, “Yi,” is something of a candid look into the studio, with a voice asking whether the band is recording, and microphone dribble at the beginning. The rest is choruses of the titular “Yi.” Why this deserved a track of its own, only Vernon can tell, but it segues into “iMi,” on which his voice joins the choirs in his trademark Auto-tune folk musings, but a step further, It’s Auto-Tune gone mad, and it’s an exhilarating, dizzying intro. The track that ensues is loose and unstructured, with Vernon’s folk-meets-soul stylings especially recalling “Swing Lo Magellan”-era Dirty Projectors. Every moment is exciting, packed with surprises, with the lyrics, “I like you, and that ain’t nothing wrong,” prompting an outburst of a deranged brass band, as in a moment of simplistic revelation. “We” picks up where this left off, and grows more intense, but less. It’s as if Vernon took Martin Hannet’s advice in the 2002 film “24 Hour Party People,” when he instructed Joy Division to play “faster, but slower,” and based his whole musical output on it. Vernon sings of “some lonely fable that we took in then right from the start,” and goes on to repeat, “I want it back,” encapsulating the feeling that runs through the album’s fractured but pastoral creations.
“Holyfields” is full of staccato tones, owl screech yelling and hooting, spliced with sonorous, soulful singing over hovering, fading strings. Vernon has revealed that the track resulted from one improvisation, and that sounds about right, but while the tracks from his side band Big Red Machine, all mainly improvised, often led to impassioned, synchronized fits, whereas this song is a laid back reflection with scattered revelatory moments. “Hey, Ma” runs to the beat of a conspicuously mechanical bleep, with the largely organic sound over it, giving a sense of a struggle to keep pace with technology. This gets more precise upon the lines, “Full time, you talk your money up / While it’s living in a coal mine.“ It’s a call for saving nature, and thank heavens for that time Vernon spent in the Wisconsin woods.
Vernon assembles an impressive cast of characters, including Moses Sumney, Bryce Dessner of the National, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, for “U (Man, Like),” with Sumney’s striking voice dominating in the mix. The title suggests a vague address to a man, or men in general, which achieves greater clarity upon the lines, “All this phallic repetition / Boy, you tell yourself a tale or two.” Coming in Vernon’s perpetual falsetto, this somehow sounds a little condescending. It develops into a mobilizing chorus of “Man like you / Man, improve.” One charming thing about Vernon’s music is the literary references occasionally thrown in unpretentiously. Here he alludes to “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera,” who orders the abusive townspeople to be killed by pirates. Just the quirk of a random reference like this makes the song.
On “Naeem,” Vernon puts on a raspy howl, and expresses frustration of empathy, repeating, “I can hear you cry,” which develops into such declarations as the lyrics, “It’s suddenly paths, mama / It ain’t about class, mama,” fit to a marching, rallying cry with horns. It’s an intense experience, to say the least. “Jelmore” is a striking number that seems to encapsulate the overall aesthetic that Bon Iver is going for with this album. It’s a fractured soundscape, with clipped bits that fade away, echoing the sentiment of the lyrics of, “We’ll all be gone by the fall,” sung in a tone somewhere between despair and serenity. Vernon condemns a thrift store manager and commends a bricklayer, reminding us of how his whole lumberjack-meets-loft artist aesthetic unites meat-and-potatoes types with celestial choir types.
One of the most sonically exhilarating songs is “Faith,” with buzzing fuzzy distortion moving through the panning alongside acousting jangling, and wheezing tones. It gets real here, and you have to hand it to Vernon. It’s even more so with the lyrics, “There is no design / You’ll have to decide / If you’ll come to know, I’m the faithful kind.” “Marion” takes a break from the fury, with sparse guitar strumming that starts and stops, while a faint synth jets out for seconds. There’s a layered chorus that sounds very much like James Blake, especially in his self-titled days, which makes for one of the album’s most grandiose moments.
Vernon actually sounds remotely grounded on “Salem,” but only for moments, after which he bursts into the most bold version of his somehow acceptable, screeching cat falsetto. He sings, “Salem burns the leaves,” and goes onto speak of her returning and seeing her “heavy fate.” It’s a curious reference, conjuring witch trials and climate change. WIth an album titled “i,i,” you should have expected to fill in the blanks, and very long ones. Vernon goes on to call for “elasticity, empowerment and ease,” well put. “Sh’Diah” marks the triumphant return of the tragically-aged smooth jazz ‘80s saxophone. It was about time — or was it? At any rate, it’s a song for gazing into the sunset reflectively, and really hitting the sax.
The closing track, “RABi,” is a far removed echo of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” particularly the “no religion too” line. Vernon calls, “I could prophet / I could rob I / However everywhere isn’t everywhere.” See what he did there with the “rabbi” pun? He goes on to bleat, “Don’t have to have a leaving plan… Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway.” And what a perfect way to close the album. If you reconsider Lennon, he spoke of how art school was a little too free for him, because he threw all caution to the wind. That’s somewhat the case here. Surely, absolute freedom fosters some of the greatest art, and ”i,i” is a case in point at its finest moments. Those moments, however, are bits in between stretches that can seem a bit hokey. In a way, this is a merit of its own. Bon Iver prides themselves on improvisation, earthly aesthetics, naturalism, etc., and the album runs like a free-flowing collective stream of consciousness with peaks and troughs and eureka moments along the way.
“i,i” is available Aug. 9 on Apple Music.