Someone broke Justin Vernon’s heart in 2006. He recovered by holing up in a Wisconsin cabin for the winter where he wrote the Bon Iver debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.
The 2011 self-titled album follow up that won Vernon his first Grammy was a dreamy exploration of place and sound using instruments ranging from steel-pedal guitars to autotune vocal rifts. 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s most acclaimed album to date, was an experimental folktronica piece about uncertainty. On their newest album i,i Bon Iver reminds us what they do best: combining organic and synthetic sounds into opaque, wandering songs.
Vernon’s voice is as malleable and earth moving as it’s ever been. His lower register is so resonant it often sounds like he’s singing from somewhere inside your chest; the falsettos and high notes are sweet and clear as a breeze. He often switches tones several times in the same song. On the Gospel-touched “U (Man Like)” Vernon flits from a rumble to a high croon within a phrase. There are plenty of other voices featured on this album, too: Elsa Jensen, Jenn Wasner, Moses Sumney, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus all lend themselves to the choruses and later verses of this track.
“Naeem” builds around a stirring chorus of “I can hear crying” before bursting into driving, dynamic drums that taper into horns and piano at the end. “Faith” combines buzzing keyboards and bass with choral arrangements and guitar into a stirring song about trust in spirituality and relationships. “Marion” has the most apparent folk heritage on the album, all acoustic guitar and gentle harmonica and Vernon’s layered vocals in his signature thick harmonies.
Bon Iver is not known for having clear lyrics, relying instead on connotations and linguistic sounds to convey a mood. The lyricism on i,i doesn’t surpass that of Bon Iver’s other albums. It doesn’t have the moments of profundity like Bon Iver or the intense emotional levity on For Emma. But muddled lyrical meaning does not translate to bad lyrics; the verse meter on album highlight “Holyfields” moves like spoken-word poetry: “Couldn’t tell ya what the cadence is/It’s folded in the evidences.” There are a handful of moments of social consciousness: “Jelmore” includes the line “How long will you disregard the heat?”, undoubtably a plea for action against climate change from the environmentally conscious Vernon.
i,i sounds less like thirteen separate tracks and more like one continuous piece of music. The song titles aren’t any help distinguishing them from each other either (although these are less adventurous than the titles on 22, A Million which included special characters and emojis.) It is all ethereal, pretty music, but there are fewer moments that stick after first listen; it’s an album that is competent, but not articulate. i,i holds up to the legacy of Bon Iver, but doesn’t add any new angles to it. Still, it is thought-provoking music perfect for a cloudy day.