Bon Iver’s fourth record feels like a defining moment for the group. ‘I,I’ is a beautiful exploration of the season of Fall and all the emotions that come with it.
Bon Iver has grown so much over the past decade, not just musically but literally. The project has expanded from an ambitious solo debut in which Justin Vernon retreated to a secluded woodland cabin to create his lovelorn masterpiece ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ into something so much more than he imagined. Vernon has spoken frequently on how he finds it uncomfortable being the centrepiece and frontman of a project, especially when people praise him for the creation of music that he is just one single part of. It feels that ‘I,I’ embraces that feeling of community and Bon Iver as a concept more than a singular artist more than ever and that starts before you even press play, open the CD and you’ll be greeted by a large ensemble of musicians, their faces slightly hidden and distorted. Or perhaps you’ve loaded up one of the albums music videos, where a dance collective is reinterpreting the project from sound into a poetic styled movement.
I feel like this journey from a singular acoustic artist to a multi-instrumental ensemble is crucial to mention because like previous Bon Iver records before it, it has a noticeably different sound and aesthetic. Trailers for the album strongly pushed a cyclical element of how this record represents the final season, ‘Fall’ and these songs feel very in sync with the late autumn nights, falling leaves and transformative nature of the season. Sonically the record takes parts of previous records to create this new unified complete sound. Vernon’s vocals rise out of the tracks, notably clearer than the various distortions of ’22, A Million’ whose electronic clicks and jazz saxophones remain but this time infused with the woodwinds of the self-titled record and acoustics from the debut. ‘Jelmore’ feels like the perfect amalgamation of all the records and sits significantly in the middle section of the record partnering ‘Faith’ a beautiful acoustic-led track which progressively grows into a soaring choral conclusion, tantalising you with various elements and electronic flourishes along the way.
Like the title of ‘I, I’ a lot of the record's tracks feel positioned as complimenting couplets, usually partnered next to each other. It’s that extra touch, the symbolism and attention to detail on Vernon’s concept that truly makes this record shine. One such example, not just of an outstanding couplet but in fact two of the best songs of Bon Iver’s discography greet you early on into the record, ‘Hey, Ma’ is a masterpiece of a track, that signifies just how powerful Bon Iver’s music can be when everything just clicks into place, the instrumentation, Vernon’s stunning lyricism and falsetto all wrapped in an incredible melody. It has a great emotional presence and provided myself with a lot of solace upon its release earlier this year. This is accompanied by ‘U (Man Like)’, a glorious track with a beautiful piano melody provided by one of Justin’s heroes Bruce Hornsby which adds an uplifting and almost spiritual element to the track.
That spiritual feeling ebbs and flows throughout the record, not in a traditional religious sense but more looping back to the philosophy of community and spontaneous communal gatherings that I feel the group is now based on, ‘Naeem’ for example feels like an inspirational sermon delivered to his devoted fan base “But I'm climbing down the bastion now, You take me out to pasture now, Well, I won't be angry long, Well, I can't be angry long” these verses gradually build throughout, the track with its rumbling drums gain an urgent pace, guitars strum and trumpets blare as Vernon begins to almost shout ‘I can hear crying’, it’s the emotional centrepiece of the record and feels like a fitting conclusion to the records Side A which in the background gradually increases from distorted synths in ‘Yi’ through to an instrumental cacophony by the time we reach ‘Naeem’.
The records second side feels distinctively different, it's much more organic and acoustic with its tracks taking longer to unfurl. ‘Salem’ is another exquisite track that opens up midway through. If a song could be described as a feeling, its that yearning for your youth when you’ve been away from your home and you’re on your way back to reconnect, it’s those evenings outside playing in the park as the leaves turn yellow and fall to the earth. This is juxtaposed by the following ‘Sh’diah’ which invites you to get lost in a whirlwind of Jazz as instead of building, the track slowly fades away into a mesmeric saxophone solo. The conclusion to the record ‘RABi’, feels like an amalgamation of everything that’s come before it, Vernon has stripped all the vocal effects back, rhyming in amusing couplets that touch upon everything from childhood to existential crisis. The guitars are reminiscent of surfer rock, it glides like a wave, comforting you as the track goes along ‘It’s all fine’ sings Vernon and you feel it, despite the craziness of life and the world around us.
By the conclusion of the record you feel as if you’ve been on a journey, tracks like ‘Hey, Ma’ and ‘U (Man Like)’ truly uplift your soul and the record isn’t afraid to leave you dwelling and introspective at points. Justin Vernon no longer feels like a prominent frontman, it’s taken four records but Bon Iver feels more like a collective, a movement even, than it has before and I can’t wait to see what the next season brings.
We last witnessed Bon Iver live back in 2017 at Haven Festival in Copenhagen, read our thoughts here.