For his devout listeners, Bon Iver’s constant reinvention has been fascinating to behold. Few who first came across the intimate, haunting acoustic sounds of For Emma, Forever Ago could have anticipated the glitched-out sounds of 22 A Million. Whilst they may have foreseen the full-band upgrade that was Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon’s later experimentation with his voice, breaking it apart and turning into nothing close to human had the potential to jar. However, beneath the sonic manipulation lay songs that, stripped back, resonated as strongly as the simple sounds of his debut record. Vernon continues this theme on the excellent i,i.
The thirteen songs here showcase ingenuity at each and every stage. This is the sound of a musician freed from the shackles of expectation, allowed simply to create without fear of any reprisal. Whilst in theory this may sound self-indulgent, it is more that Vernon clearly trusts his core audience to not judge on first impressions. In our all too jittery world, we tend to bounce from song to song, album to album without returning to hear the nuances. Giving ‘Naeem’ or ‘Salem’ just the once over would be to leave it entirely unexplored. This is a record that you must allow yourself to digest. Although the nonsensical, symbol-laden song titles of 22 A Million are gone, the concept of discovery remains. Vernon continues to use his words and his voice in a way that can initially seem impenetrable. Be patient, listen closely, and the words are entirely relatable. ‘I thought that this was half a love, ‘ he sings on ‘Marion’, though on first run through you could be forgiven for hearing the song’s name here. This is the power of personal understanding that Bon Iver records ask of their listeners.
Vernon’s instrumentation is rarely at fault here, perhaps stuttering only once on the literally stuttering sound of ‘Jerome’. The rest of the album walks you through joy and sadness in equal measure, guitars and horns all providing the backdrop for Vernon’s peaks and troughs. We ourselves are welcomed with open arms. The universal themes of ‘Hey Ma’, with it’s exploration of parental reliance, strike a particular tone midway through the record. Again, we see that relatability is never far in the work of Bon Iver if you are ready and willing to meet Vernon halfway.
The story behind For Emma, Forever Ago gave the album such weight, such poignancy, that it was impossible to listen to without the image of the man in the log cabin, pouring his heart out in solitude for the lover who had departed. The myth behind the album’s recording grew into such a behemoth that it is no wonder Vernon spent the next few years attempting to shed the story, despite it being his own. He tells us that we are at the end of a four album cycle, in fall, where the leaves darken and the temperatures cool. The chaos of 22 A Million is behind us, and we are free to breathe. We prepare for the coming winter safe in the knowledge that we know what to expect. i,i is the record of calm acceptance, Vernon appearing to grow comfortable with the myth that preceded his rise and now ready to move onto new pastures.
An exceptional piece of work that deserves time and attention.
Review by Alexander Sarychkin