ALBUM REVIEW: Bon Iver continues growth, strengthens heart on ‘i,i’

Bon Iver

Could anyone have predicted the growth of Bon Iver over the past decade?

It’s not that the project didn’t possess certain prerequisites for success: For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon’s 2007 debut album under that name, came complete with an enthralling origin story, a well-worn folk sound, and that singular, pleading voice. It’s the kind of album that is simultaneously deeply personal and highly approachable – when it blew Bon Iver up, it didn’t seem completely out of left field.

But it is unlikely anyone would have predicted Bon Iver’s rise into this – an arena-touring, boundary-pushing art pop band. Sure, there were early signs that more was in the cards: 2009’s Blood Bank EP pointed at new directions, embracing subtle, Steve Reich-ian minimalism, new electric textures, and…Auto-Tune?! “Woods”, its final track, was just Vernon’s unique falsetto mutated and layered on itself – a kind of insular, strange, R&B unlike anything in the catalog to that point. Equally jarring and intriguing, it attracted some surprising new fans, including Kanye West, who sampled the song on his landmark My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Soon Vernon wasn’t just a folk singer – he was a hip collaborator and influential sonic sculptor. 

Bon Iver may still conjure up images of Vernon alone in a cabin, but the project has increasingly embraced a collective approach: 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver showcased more of a full-band sound, complete with synthesizers, military drums, and even a slow jam straight out of Senior Ball ’85. Then came 2016’s 22, A Million, which plays like Woods – The Album – an evolution by way of total deconstruction. With a handful of collaborators, Vernon manipulated not just his voice but the whole sound of Bon Iver in new, radical ways. The entire album felt like corrupted files from previous recording sessions, with hints of the past subsumed by digital glitches. It was strangely beautiful – human at its core, but alien in its presentation.

i,i doesn’t completely dispense with 22, A Million’s funhouse mirror distortions, but it does have a concreteness that has been missing for a while. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also the most outwardly collaborative album of the band’s career, with contributions from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, The National’s Aaron Dessner, James Blake, and Vernon-acknowledged spiritual touchstone Bruce Hornsby, among others. Supposedly the completion of a four-album cycle, with each representing a season (For Emma is Winter, Bon Iver is Spring, 22, A Million is Summer, this is Fall), i,i  molds recognizable elements into new shapes, creating a hopeful kind of modern pop that feels like sunlight on a cold day.

Opening track “iMi” (not counting the formless intro, “Yi”) works well as a thesis statement. It is a mix of Bon Iver’s past and present, cowritten with James Blake, who handles the human voice in similarly taffy-like ways. “iMi” plays like a folk-R&B hybrid, combining amorphous backing vocals (courtesy of Blake) and slightly cacophonous horns with distinctly analog instrumentation and Vernon’s unadorned voice in the foreground. It’s modern and traditional at once – one of many examples on the album to dispense with the stereotype that experimental textures are cold and unapproachable.

“Jelmore” illustrates the same point: it’s a ballad full of woozy, shapeshifting surfaces that hearkens back to 22, A Million but exudes a sunlit warmth. “Salem” feels a bit like Kid A in love, somehow adding a big, U2 chorus and krautrock chug that feel completely natural, while “Sh’Diah” is a delicate horn-filled ballad that floats in suspended animation. Some songs trend more straightforward – piano-led “Naaem,” backwoods ballad “Marion,” closer “RABi” – while others slightly tweak that formula, to good effect: “Faith” adds touches of blown-out digital distortion that never detract from its glow, while “We” is R&B by way of the Wisconsin countryside. 

It’s a trio of tracks in the middle of the album that give i,i its sonic and spiritual center. “Holyfields,” “Hey, Ma,” and “U (Man Like)” are similar but different showcases of Bon Iver’s true calling card – Vernon’s voice. His lyrics have always functioned as unique, abstract snapshots that mostly take a backseat to that instrument – it’s not necessarily about what he’s singing, it’s about how he’s singing it. 

On “Holyfields,” Vernon and company mix Reading Rainbow synths and orchestral swells into a kind of gentle, twilit lullaby. Some lyrics are audible, some aren’t, but the feelings are there – the track is playful, mysterious, and welcoming. The hauntingly gorgeous bridge is one of the album’s best moments, balancing warm and cold in the same way Robert Kirby’s string arrangements for Nick Drake do. It feels like looking out the window on a cold day from beside a crackling fireplace. 

“Hey, Ma” uses space to great effect, its spare backing reminiscent of 808s and Heartbreak. A metronome blinks like a light; a synth pad swirls around it; Vernon’s voice enters, gentle and sentimental. There’s some snare drum, strings, horns, and samples, but not much more. The song flirts with dissonance in places, but always reverts back to sweetness. It’s an abstract expression of comfort and familial love.

“U (Man Like)” is perhaps the purest articulation of i,i’s communal spirit. Built around an ebullient, gospel-like piano – played with characteristic verve by Hornsby – the song features a range of singers, including Moses Sumney, Hornsby, Wasner, Vernon, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (with The National’s Bryce Dessner). Sometimes they trade lines; sometimes they sing together. Regardless of the combinations, it feels like a crowd gathered around a piano, smiling and singing. That the song is a rebuke of toxic masculinity does nothing to diminish its sweetness – it feels as hopeful as it is achingly beautiful.

i,i is a deeply human, unmistakably Bon Iver-ian statement of togetherness. As unlikely as the project’s meteoric rise has been, and no matter where the sonic zigs and zags take them, something continues to resonate – enough so that people will fill arenas to hear them play. Bon Iver may be a different beast than in 2007, but i,i makes clear that Vernon and company have not only retained their heart – they’ve strengthened it.  

Words by Andrew Ledford