Premature Evaluation: Bon Iver i,i

Bon Iver only make classics. Throughout his decade-plus in the spotlight, Justin Vernon has been a prolific creator, a relentless collaborator, and a fearless explorer. He has generated music under many guises, in various configurations, with a diverse cross-section of people. His discography is wide and deep, and much of it is rewarding. But he generally saves his best work for Bon Iver, the band that made him an indie rock legend.

Up until now, Vernon has shepherded three Bon Iver albums into the world, each one brilliant and special in its own way. With 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, he famously sequestered himself at a remote Wisconsin cabin for the winter, writing and recording his way through a romantic breakup between hunting sessions. He pushed his voice into its upper register, dug deep into his heartbreak, and came away with a strikingly unique collection of folk-rock songs — ghostly yet painfully human, skeletal yet gorgeously ornate. The album became a word-of-mouth sensation and helped to define the woodsy bearded indie-folk archetype that Vernon has spent the rest of his career subverting.

On Blood Bank, the companion EP released less than a year after Jagjaguwar brought For Emma to a mass audience, he was already redrawing Bon Iver’s horizons — most obviously by going full Imogen Heap on the Auto-Tuned a cappella hymn “Woods,” the song that inspired Kanye West to make Vernon’s multi-tracked falsetto a key building block in his own music. With 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, he exploded the project’s boundaries altogether, turning outward from the intimate confines of For Emma into an aesthetic more like stepping outside into breathtaking natural beauty. It was folk-rock; it was indie-rock; it was post-rock; it was soft rock. To listen was to see for miles, miles, miles.

If For Emma made Vernon indie-famous, Bon Iver, Bon Iver made him Grammy-famous, famous enough to be parodied by Justin Timberlake on SNL. He put the band on hiatus for a good long while to focus on other endeavors — side projects, music festivals, guest features, trips abroad — leaving doubt as to whether there would ever be another Bon Iver album. And then, in 2016, there was, and thank God. With 22, A Million, Vernon once again redefined the band, deconstructing the previous album’s grandiose swells and rebuilding them as stubbly cyborg power ballads in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. It was another stunning collection, one that transcended the trope of the folk musician going electronic. Even if you laughed at the numerology, the funky nomenclature, the often inscrutable lyrics — and oh, I have laughed — mostly you just gasped at the beauty. The critic Jeremy Larson described it best: “Imagine a movie that starts with the end credits and just magically continues in a state of perpetual finale — off the film, off the reel, and off the grid.”

Bon Iver, though, have been very much on the grid in the years since 22, A Million. They’ve kept touring the world in fits and starts, working on new music all the while. And now, less than three years later, they’ve returned with their fourth album, i,i. Perhaps not coincidentally, the shortest interim between Bon Iver albums has yielded the least radical departure in the band’s history. Rather than reinventing their sound, they’ve doubled back across their discography, picking up bits and pieces from along the way. The result is the first Bon Iver album that sounds more familiar than new.

On i,i, Vernon and his cast of collaborators show off what a rich musical language they’ve developed and how fluent they’ve become in it. As for the English language — well, if you’re looking to clown Vernon, he’s given you ample opportunity: another tracklist peppered with nonsense words and bizarre punctuation, multiple references to “toking,” the lyrics “So I’m gonna weep a while/ You don’t even know how hard.” Those invested in Bon Iver will likely recognize such characteristics as the tics of a treasured friend, but that’s not all they’ll recognize. Electro-organic flickers like “Holyfields,” “Jelmore,” and “Sh’Diah” burrow deeper into 22, A Million’s recesses, while the impassioned machinery of “iMi” picks up where “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” left off. For Emma is an unrepeatable miracle, but “Marion” and “RABi” may be the closest Vernon has come to recapturing its barebones prettiness. “We,” “Hey, Ma,” “Faith,” and others evoke the misty-eyed landscapes of LP2. “Naeem,” perhaps the album’s most dynamic anthem, even harks back to Vernon’s work with Volcano Choir.

As songwriters, arrangers, producers, and performers, the Bon Iver collective continue to operate at a high level across the board, so that i,i never feels stagnant even when it’s echoing the past. Music built from the most conventional ingredients can be captivating when born from inspiration and crafted with care. It’s even truer of songs breathed with the celestial aching of For Emma, fleshed out with the earthy splendor of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and enhanced with the radioactive nootropics of 22, A Million. There may come a time when this band begins to coast, when their signature touches curdle into cliché, but for now their music remains enlivened by the joy of creation.

That joy is distinctly communal. If there’s one way in which i,i represents genuine progress for Bon Iver, it’s the continued transformation from a Justin Vernon solo effort to a community project. Even For Emma was not exclusively Vernon’s handiwork, but both its creation myth and the music’s stripped-down solitude suggested a man alone with his feelings, working some shit out. Each successive album has brought more collaborators into the fold, none more so than i,i. Throughout his years in the spotlight Vernon has not just assembled a catalog; he’s cultivated a scene. This album feels like a culmination of that ethos — a dozen Bon Iver songs infused with the freewheeling spirit of an Eaux Claires or 37d03d festival.

So many of Vernon’s friends came out to play. James Blake, Jenn Wasner, Moses Sumney, Bruce Hornsby, the Staves, Francis Starlite, the Dessner brothers, the Cook brothers, Spank Rock, Velvet Negroni, Marta Salogni, Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh — the list goes on. All of them leave their own imprint within the sonic universe established by Vernon and his core bandmates. More accurately, they reveal the many ways that universe has already been influenced and enriched by Vernon’s peers. If that first record sounded lonely and haunted, Bon Iver now more closely resembles a vast congregation spinning futuristic secular gospel music — sometimes explicitly so, as on the tender spiritual hymn “Marion” or the sparse piano romp “U (Man Like).”

The thrill of creation is evident, yet i,i is not necessarily a happy album. Despite the often impressionistic quality of Vernon’s lyrics, there are times when his intentions shine through clearly enough. The interpersonal drama that has always been the project’s bedrock remains, as does the spiritual seeking that has gradually crept into the picture. Vernon, an avowed Bernie bro from the battleground state of Wisconsin, also seems to take aim at the climate crisis (“Jelmore”), the opioid epidemic (“U (Man Like)”), and the self-inflected wounds of Trumpism (“We”) — albeit in typically elliptical language that leaves much to the imagination.

Encountering all this on a Bon Iver album isn’t too surprising. By this point, both Vernon and his band are well-established entities with an unmistakable point of view. Like Radiohead or Vernon’s close friends in the National, they’ve reached a point in their career when a unique identity has been carved out, when evolution slows to a process of tweaking and refining. With i,i, the surprise is not some kind of upheaval; it’s that Bon Iver have remained so inspired and engaging without upheaval. Whether you rank it alongside the band’s other masterpieces will likely depend on whether you tend to stick with artists once that period of breathless transformation concludes. Skeptics may want to spit one particular lyric back at Vernon: “We heard that story before.” That was my own first impression too, a sense that Bon Iver were spinning their wheels. After spending some time with i,i, though, my feelings can be summed up by a different line: “I like you, and that ain’t nothin’ new.”

i,i is out now on Jagjaguwar. Stream it below.

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