ALBUM REVIEW: Bon Iver Comes Full Circle on ‘i,i’

The new record from Justin Vernon and company is an expansive, welcoming culmination of everything they’ve done.

The staying power of one of indie-rock’s most important acts over the past decade can be attributed to one word: change.

Bon Iver’s debut, 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago, was born from one of the most mythical origin stories in music: a heartbroken man disappears into the Wisconsin winter with only a guitar, returning with music that was intimate, rough-hewn and unendingly beautiful. On 2011’s spring-like self-titled, Bon Iver, the beauty remained, but the guitar sketches of Emma had been transformed into something more full bodied and abstract, flourished with reedy saxophones and gentle snares.

In a way, Justin Vernon’s records have mirrored the arc of another fearless innovator—and one of his most unlikely collaborators—Kanye West. After a few records of gradual artistic maturation, West took a sharp left into experimentation, drenching his voice in autotune and sinking into somber, electronic textures on 808’s And Heartbreak. In a way, Vernon did the same with 2016’s 22, A Million, fracturing his music into something jagged, unprecedented and full of pain.

And so, after experiencing the winter, spring and summer with Vernon, we arrive at the fall of i,i. Collaborative, forthcoming and enlivening, it’s a record that takes elements from all of his previous works and warps them together into something that’s both comfortingly familiar and delightfully new. It may not be Vernon’s version of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it stands as a towering peak in the Bon Iver story.

Following a 30-second intro filled with studio chatter is “iMi.” Going back and forth between insistent, hissing gushes of sound and Vernon’s double-tracked, warped vocals, it buries the emptiness of unrequited love into a song that’s both wildly conflicted and wide open. The voices anchor this swirl of horns, harps, orchestral elements and glitches, whether in the company of only a guitar, or under the crushing weight of the brass section. It’s a truly beautiful song, one that breathes life into its surroundings.

At its heart, i,i is truly a collaborative effort. From James Blake’s contributions on “iMi,” to Moses Sumney and Bruce Hornsby’s vocals peppered through “U (Man Like),” the record thrives under a sense of committee, an expansion to the ever-growing universe the Bon Iver project has become. It reveals another connection to Kanye: Vernon’s gift for drawing out something powerful from his collaborators, whether it be in the warmth of Francis Starlite’s synths on “Faith,” or in “Naeem”s magnificent choral outro, performed by Bryce Dessner and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Of course, none of it takes away from Vernon himself, a brilliantly expressive vocalist who remains at the eye of i,i‘s ever-morphing hurricane. His performance on “Marion” is soulfully hypnotic, a repetitive vocal showcase that sees his voice crackle and growl with conviction. While referencing the 2016 election, he placid beauty of “Sh’Diah” (short for “shittiest day in American history”) evokes a lake at sunset, a nice contrast to Vernon’s begging to “keep it rational.”

Then there’s the stunning centerpiece, “Hey, Ma.” An abstract collage of childhood memories and “toking on dope,” it’s held up by brisk snares, ambient saxophones and the submerged ping of a sonar. Vernon’s voice is disarmingly clear here, devoid of any vocal effects, offering a soothing message: “you’re back and forth with light.” The song is the apex of i,i, a beam of light that shines through every bit of the record. For once, we can see Vernon clearly.

Score: 󠀻i i i i i / 5