Embracing the unknown: Bon Iver’s ‘i,i’

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Friday, September 13th, 2019 at 11:16 AM
Embracing the unknown: Bon Iver’s ‘i,i’ by Evan Donovan

“i,i” is the fourth full-length album in indie folk-hero Justin Vernon’s core discography. Followed by a rotating cast of musicians, Vernon unabashedly leads Bon Iver into strange and uncomfortable places every few years. From 2008’s acoustic-and-falsetto-driven “For Emma, Forever Ago,” to the electronic hellscape of 2016’s “22, A Million,” Bon Iver finds its place somewhere in between on “i,i.”

The album opens with “Yi,” a 30-second clip of band chatter, followed by sporadic electronic hisses and screeches. Upon first listen, I did not think much of “Yi.” It was only when I sat down and listened to the album in full that I realized this brief opener foreshadows many of the running themes of the album. It is personal, chaotic and unapologetically unique.

“Yi” leads directly into one of the album’s strongest tracks, “iMi.” The song begins with a vocal phrase from James Blake, electronically obscured to the point of disorientation. Vernon follows up with a strong, driven melody on the verse, underscored solely by acoustic guitar. The song then builds up into a patchwork of Vernon’s strengths. White noise and vocal manipulation are built into the score beautifully and unobtrusively. “iMi” is Bon Iver at its best: obscure and unhinged, yet focused and satisfying.

Very few times does “i,i” lose focus, but when it does, the results are damaging. The album’s fourth track, “Holyfields,” takes listeners on a tedious, extraneous detour, ruining the momentum “i,i” has built up until that point. The song centers around an incredibly simplistic, stuttering electronic riff, while Vernon’s lyrics and vocal performance on this cut are bland and uninspiring, creating an all-around bad experience. Other tracks are underwhelming for similar reasons. The closing track, “RABi,” sounds like a last-minute effort to make the album 13 songs long (which for an artist as meticulous as Bon Iver is deeply disappointing).
In light of these grievances, this record finds redemption in a few great songs. “Faith” is one of the most honest and personal tracks in Bon Iver’s discography. In this moment, Vernon wrestles with questions of skepticism and religiosity honestly, asking: “Am I dependent in what I’m defending? And do we get to hold what faith provides?”

The song “Hey, Ma” is a perfect mix of simplicity and grandeur. Low synths lead in, while Justin shouts his way to an incredibly infectious chorus. Longtime Bon Iver fans should find familiarity and enjoyment in this song. “Naeem,” meanwhile, is a testament to Vernon’s ability to make gibberish sound fascinating, shouting “I’m having a bad, bad toke” over pounding piano chords. Other noteworthy tracks include “Sh’Diah” and “U (Man Like),” which both stay true to the Bon Iver style with confident, crooning falsetto.

At 13 tracks, “i,i” is Bon Iver’s longest album to date. With this in mind, I fully expected to be disappointed at times and enthralled at others. After several listens, I found this prediction mostly accurate. Some songs were awful, some were forgettable, and some were great. Nevertheless, “i,i” succeeds in differentiating itself from the rest of Bon Iver’s catalog. It will be interesting to see where this direction, once better refined, takes them in the future. As for now, this album only hints at greatness.

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