i,i is Justin Vernon’s fourth album under the Bon Iver moniker, the last in a seasonal cycle of albums that began in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago (Winter), then continued with Bon Iver (Spring), 22, A Million (Summer). This culminates in the Autumnal i,i.
Those 12 years since the rustic folk of For Emma have been exceptional for Vernon. The artist is arguably among the most influential on the planet. A co-founder of the People Collective and a longtime collaborator of Kanye West, Vernon is a figurehead for the expansive potential of the modern musician. A genre-fluid, do it all artist who allows his interests and inspirations to wholeheartedly conduct his attention.
Perhaps this facet of Vernon’s personality is why audiences were able to access i,i a full three weeks early. Originally billed for release on August 30th, Vernon might have just lost interest in waiting any longer. In any case, Bon Iver seems like a project overseen and directed from top to bottom by Vernon himself.
i,i is the longest Bon Iver record to date by track listing. However, its 39 minute run time is tied with Bon Iver despite that album having a full three songs less on the spread.
This should hint at the sometimes scatty nature of i,i. Excluding the 30-second introduction of ‘Yi’, there’s more than a few two minute and change tracks. Some of the longer tracks, like the austere ‘Holyfields’ or ‘iMi’ seem almost split in two, beginning and ending on two very different ideas.
i,i is streamed from Vernon’s consciousness. In this, the music serves the singer. Dynamic swells like those on ‘Hey, Ma’ or the bright horn flashes on ‘Marion’ are indebted to the lyrical narrative. A feature that can be traced back to the arrangments on 22, A Million and no further in the Bon Iver discography.
I still can’t really place how this album relates to its predecessors in the context of the seasonal cycle. Vernon’s voice is unmistakable and the very muted guitar treatment does harken back to Bon Iver, but everything else has changed.
The lyrics on i,i will surely shock the Bon Iver faithful. Specifically, the vernacular Vernon has decided to adopt on it. i,i removes the calling card abstractisms from the verses usually associated with a Bon Iver LP.
Even before he starts to sing we hear Vernon ask “are you recording, Trevor?” in the album’s intro. It may seem funny to say, but it’s almost uncomfortable to hear Vernon’s naked voice on a track. It’s not something I’d ever associate with Bon Iver, which has always been a moniker more than a bit shrouded in mystery.
When he does sing listeners are granted access to unfiltered expression for the perhaps the first time. There’s lyrics on i,i that are straight off the bone. Take the supreme ‘U (Man Like)’ with its centrepiece couplet “How much caring is there of some American love? / when there’s lovers sleeping in our streets?”. Is that a socio-cultural commentary from Vernon? I love it but never thought I’d hear the like.
A personal favourite lyric is lifted from ‘Holyfields,’ “So you wanna leave a mark? / You’re honing in on Meadow Park? / I heard you guys are very safe / Caught up with the featherweights”. There’s just enough subtle humour here for that line to be rightly considered as tongue in cheek. A million miles from the intense drama of Bon Iver’s previous works.
Vernon has described ‘Holyfields’ as “an improvised moment with barely any editing”. This is endemic. Here and throughout i,i, Vernon seems self-assured. Confident in his own songwriting, comfortable with his own humanity. There seems to be little revisionism of any song’s initial inspiration.
Another palpable influence to the sound and shape of i,i are the contributing musicians and collaborators who feature on it. Sean Carey, the band’s drummer, has such a distinctive style that makes his playing hard to miss. It’s that same near marching bad feel which has provided so much momentum and rhythm to Vernon’s harmonies for years now.
James Blake, seemingly everywhere at the moment, has an obvious feature on ‘iMi’. Moses Sumney’s voice is there somewhere on ‘U (Man Like)’. Aaron Dressner is credited on both ‘Faith’ and ‘iMi’, but the greater influence of both Dressner brothers is felt throughout the LP’s production. i,i can feel a lot like I Am Easy To Find in spells, an easy leap in logic considering the PEOPLE collective connection.
Exact genre eludes i,i but it’s more than just nostalgia that makes the LP remind me quite a bit of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. There’s something in the very nasal textures of tracks like ‘We’, ‘Sh’Diah’ and ‘Jelmore’ that puts me in that mind.
On the other hand, the arrangements throughout this LP can be extremely warm. The opening piano exchange on ‘U (Man Like)’ is aching. Ditto to the gospel vocal harmonies which pilfer that same track.
‘Marion’ is perhaps the closest to an archetypical Bon Iver track we really get on i,i. It’s a short, quiet moment on the album but it stands out for the fact that it’s a relatively acoustic arrangement on an otherwise electronically driven record.
‘RABi’ is a fitting close to the excellent i,i. It’s also a fitting end to a chapter in Vernon’s career. At the end of Bon Iver’s 12-year seasonal cycle, the material the artist made his name and reputation upon, the frank admission “Well, it’s all just scared of dying / But isn’t this a beach?” is among Vernon’s most human to date.
The artist himself sums this up on a quote taken from Apple Music – “There’s a lot to be sad about, there’s a lot to be confused about, there’s a lot to be thankful for. And leaning on gratitude and appreciation of the people around you that make you who you are, make you feel safe, and provide that shelter so you can be who you want to be, there’s still that impetus in life. We need that.”
The future of the Bon Iver project seems uncertain. By virtue of completing the cycle, it’s clear that whatever follows, if anything follows at all, will be something altogether different.