There’s an pulsing impatience to i,i, the latest album by Bon Iver which continues on with the plight to explore musical deconstruction and expression in ways that implode while imploring its listeners to see beyond the scattering notes. It isn’t their most consistent product, a label that still lies with the fabulously bleak yet curiously comforting third album 22, A Million but possesses far greater strides as a rigorous and commanding vision of morality, all of which is on display with singer-song master Justin Vernon’s vocals. In no other album to date – even the more stripped down and vocal friendly self-titled Bon Iver or For Emma, Forever Ago – has Vernon’s combative voice contained such grit and growl, such untampered with passion and wanderlust. As equally idyllic and mystifying as it is elusive and strange, i,i is unable to straddle the heights of the groups own predecessor, but what it offers in return suggests promise that far surpasses the one album.
Bon Iver was born as something fully acoustic, reverberating in the hollow loneliness of winter, tucked away in a cabin that engulfed itself in snow. It turned into something less downtrodden but striking weary and lovesick as the ice melted away to spring, feverish and diluted as the music matched the mood and stripped itself bare. Then came summer, wild and inconsistent and strikingly, startlingly magnificent, even as the album rebuilt its sound to create something messily all-consuming. Now, with this album, it’s putting all of those fragmented musical pieces together to create something odd, still longing and beautiful. Vernon may liken his works to seasons but I can’t help but associate that initial loneliness with the isolation that comes with insomnia, that sweet heartache with the crisp morning air, the uninhibited summer bite with the eager ambition of day and i,i’s communal deconstruction the last laugh as the sun sets. Everything in Bon Iver’s work is cyclical.
That being said, while the album doesn’t necessarily get off on the wrong foot, it takes a few songs before the full potential is unearthed. “Hey, Ma” the first song released from the album isn’t the best it has to offer but is a perfect amalgamation of what Vernon has come to define Bon Iver as – silliqual lyricism, dreamy synths and offbeat pacing. But it’s “U (Man Like)” that is the album’s first that can be added to their lexicon of greats. Featuring Moses Sumney adding to the vocal volley of call and response, Bruce Hornsby on piano and Bryce Dessner with the choral arrangement, it’s the moment where all of the elements build to their potential completion, Bon Iver fully sounding like the ensemble they want to be rather than a solo, sullen singer-songwriter and with that still imbuing the song with warmth that otherwise is absent in stubbornly cynical lyrics.
One of the greatest triumphs of i,i is the reliance on Vernon’s voice, so often decorative or beholden to the needs of the song, allowing them to be stripped bare. It would be easy for vocals to be drowned out in an album that works so hard to incorporate different sounds and elements and yet it’s a testament to the singer that his voice shines through and stronger than ever. Similarly, the lyricism remains poetic if evasive, still never fully spelling out in plain words the songs intent, instead allowing the indirectness to inspire listeners to project on their own meaning. In “Salem” Venon sings:
“‘Cause abnormalities/Surely are everywhere you see/Sow what I think we need/Is elasticity/empowerment and ease.”
While a rather dour in nature song, the lyrics are just vague enough that if, like me, you’re alert for any and all optimism, you may see the thoughtful, inquisitive mind behind the words.
“Naeem” offers power, hinging off of minor piano chords and now a familiar hymn backbone that reaches out over the heads of its listeners. Vernon’s voice blisters, it breaks and it hides nothing even as his lyrics continually confound. He sings:
“Oh, my mind, our kids got bigger/But I’m climbing down the bastion now/You take me out to pasture now/Well, I won’t be angry long/Well, I can’t be angry long”
Regardless of all of the highlights, it’s “Faith” that remains the albums most powerful, visceral and raw in a way that’s also undeniably, gorgeously rendered with untouchable production value. It swells like the best of 22, A Million, eliciting emotional responses from this writer as she drove bleary eyed into work. In “Faith” Vernon sings of the wonderful things he’s learned to waste, of missed opportunities and love lost. But he sings with such conviction, such naked want that as the piece swells and the backing choir supports every dip, the song transforms from something tranquil and longing into one that’s pushing us forward, towards something greater. He sings:
“I know it’s lonely in the dark/And this year’s a visitor/And we have to know that faith declines/I’m not out all the way”
It’s a largely cohesive effort with as many hands in the mix as there’s ever been. Maybe it’s that wonderful sense of collaboration both literal (with work from Sumney, James Blake, Wye Oaks lead Jenn Wasner) and figurative, the open wound that is Vernon’s persistent anxieties that allows the music to, once again, transcend the words pouring, bellowing from the singer’s mouth. He has, as he is want to do, come full circle, once again finding a way to loop his great pains into his great strengths, but this time, as he began to hint with in 22, A Million, he isn’t locking out the world that might cause him harm but, instead, opening it wide to allow others inside, the sun setting into a new day.