If there’s one constant that shapes the indie folk and electronic band Bon Iver, it’s the unexpected. In a surprise move, the group made its fourth full length album, “i,i,” available for streaming in early August, three weeks before the record was scheduled to be released. In what may be the final album from the band, Bon Iver continues to stretch creatively, fusing sounds from their past to make something novel and interesting.
The album follows 2016’s “22, A Million,” a breathtaking work of studio wizardry that represented a major change of direction for the band. In the tradition of acts like James Blake and Radiohead, the record demonstrated the potential of the increasingly powerful digital tools at artist’s disposal, using vocal processing, sampling and a vast range of effects to create a wholly original sound.
The group’s creative ambitions and prowess in the studio are just as evident on “i,i.” Opening track “iMi” sets this tone, beginning with the lush and alien sound of an echoing vocal sample blending with rushes of static. This gives way to a stuttery, pitched-up vocal line that may be mistaken for frontman and founder, Justin Vernon. In reality it’s Mike Noyce, a former member of Bon Iver.
The album features a wide range of collaborators, many of whom have a long history with the band. The horn section Worm Crew, which made essential contributions to “22, A Million,” can be heard throughout the record, and James Blake appears briefly on “iMi.” Other sources of input are a bit more surprising. In an interview with Apple Music, Vernon described working with a producer for rappers Young Thug and Future on the song “We,” and “iMi” incorporates vocals from the genre-melding Velvet Negroni.
As all this collaboration suggests, those hoping for a rehashing of the sound established on “22, A Million” will need to adjust their expectations. While “i,i” is still informed by the electronic weirdness that shaped the previous record, it’s also clearly seeking new territory. In a statement released in July, Vernon spoke to this transformation, placing it in the context of a larger creative evolution uniting Bon Iver’s four albums. He said:
“The thirteen new songs on ‘i,i’ complete a cycle: from the winter of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ came the frenetic spring of ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver,’ and the unhinged summer of ‘22, A Million.’ Now, fall arrives early with ‘i,i.’”
If “22, A Million” represents the unhinged peak of the band’s creative energy, then “i,i” is the gradual bending back to the subdued and spacious sound that defined “For Emma, Forever Ago,” an album Vernon wrote and recorded in a secluded Wisconsin cabin. Overall, “i,i” is a less epic, urgent album than its predecessor.
There are exceptions: the rolling drums and swelling energy of the final verse in “Naeem” are as grand as anything on “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” or “22, A Million,” and the chorus of “Hey, Ma” is an anthemic singalong. Yet many songs are strikingly understated. “Jelmore” is made up of a shuddering synth, a saxophone, Vernon’s vocal parts and little else.
The gentle, acoustic guitar driven “Marion” is a throwback to the group’s folkier days and could almost be a long-lost track from “For Emma, Forever Ago.” On “Sh’Diah,” Vernon croons in his signature falsetto over a murmuring sea of synth and keys, eventually giving way to a saxophone solo.
Coming down from the high of “22, A Million,” it’s possible to mistake the quietness of “i,i” as a kind of regression. There isn’t the same visceral energy that animates songs like “715 – CR∑∑KS” or the explosive finale of “33 ‘GOD,’” and many songs on the new album takes a bit more patience to sink into.
But listeners willing to return to “i,i” a few times will be rewarded. The music put out by Vernon and his collaborators will always be carefully crafted and listening to the wondrous sounds the group cooks up is still a pleasure, even if there are fewer fireworks.
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Unsurprisingly, the album also offers plenty to chew on lyrically. As on previous records, Vernon’s writing is cryptic, apparently drawn from his own private vocabulary of images, experiences and inside jokes. “Danger been stepping in / I’m happy as I ever been / Couldn’t tell ya what the cadence is / It’s folded in the evidences,” he sings on “Holyfields.”
But despite these challenges to interpretation, Vernon still offers plenty of lucid and beautiful lines to hold onto. On “iMi,” Vernon describes the process of confronting his own inner turmoil, which he described to Pitchfork as reaching new heights around the time “22, A Million” was released.
“Living in a lonesome way / had me looking other ways,” he sings, “But on a bright fall morning I’m with it/ I stood a little while within it.” Later, on “Faith,” he speaks on the evolution of his spiritual life, a dimension that has consistently been a theme in his writing. Increasingly, he’s become alienated by the idea of organized religion or a deity, and in the song, he wonders: “Do we get to hold what faith provides?”
“i,i” is Bon Iver’s most socially-conscious album to date and, at times, Vernon will shed his enigmatic style to make a blunt, political statement, relating to economic inequality, the state of the environment or the nation’s current president. The most memorable of these moments is the chorus of “Hey, Ma,” which delivers a poetic yet pointed rebuke of those who exploit the environment for profit.
“Full time, you talk your money up / while it’s living in a coal mine / Tall time to call your Ma,” Vernon warns. The main question could be some kind of moral authority, or a metaphor for the Earth itself. The spirit of a passionate activist that can be heard in lines like these is a new look for Vernon as a songwriter, and the idea of him developing into a cosmic protest singer is exciting.
Because “i,i” is the last album in the cycle Vernon has described, it’s reasonable to wonder if the end of Bon Iver is in sight. While this likely wouldn’t mean the end of Vernon and his affiliates as a creative force, it would still be painful to see the band go.
Few groups are capable of the artistic leaps that have made up Bon Iver’s past, and it would be a pleasure to see where they go next. But if this album is a conclusion, it’s an acceptable one. “i,i” is thoughtful, endlessly inventive and frequently gorgeous, and should give fans plenty to listen to for years to come.