There’s little doubt that, over the course of his prolific career, Justin Vernon has become an artist who splits opinions. There are the fervent followers who await his every move. They will tell you that he is among the most important and influential musicians of our generation. Then there’s the haters. Lots of them. To these, Vernon has been putting out similar sounding and not very exciting music for years. If you’d seen my reaction to the sudden announcement of i,i back in June, you’d know that I fall firmly into the first camp and that I feel almost sorry for those in the second. They’re really missing out. I have spent a lot of time with nearly everything he’s put out and, whether Bon Iver, Big Red Machine, Volcano Choir, or any of his other projects, I have always found something to love.
But I kind of understand the haters, too; Vernon has a ‘sound’, a style, a voice that makes him immediately identifiable. If you aren’t into it, then yeah – I can see how it would irritate. What I don’t understand, though, is those who dismiss him by saying that everything he does sounds the same and that he isn’t doing anything new. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Focusing just on Bon Iver, we saw a steady evolution from For Emma, Forever Ago to the self-titled follow up. And if you then put the debut next to third album 22, A Million, it would be hard to identify that the same artist had created them if it wasn’t for that signature voice. On a journey of just three albums, we had seen Bon Iver turn from an acoustic outfit to the pioneers of an electronic folk revolution.
So, while there was probably very little doubt that I was going to enjoy i,i, I do have to admit to some trepidation while I was waiting for its release. Of the singles released early, only ‘Hey Ma’ reached the heights I was hoping for. ‘Faith’ has also been very well received, but I was only lukewarm on it. And the Moses Sumney featuring ‘U (Man Like)’ was, if I’m being completely honest, one of the first songs Vernon has released that I couldn’t get on board with at all. I just don’t get it.
So I sat down with a glass of wine and the new album not really knowing what to expect. One outstanding single, one that was decent if not great, and one I couldn’t stand. Luckily, after the short and stuttering introduction of ‘Yi’, I was immediately reassured by the beautiful ‘iMi’. It’s a lovely little song which actually seems to meld some of the stylings of all three of his previous albums. And this is a theme that will continue throughout. There is a return to the folkier sounds of album one and two here, while at the same time there is also a ramping up of the electronics and glitchy sounds that made 22, A Million such a surprise.
And after such a positive reaction to ‘iMi’, I half expected that I had got the album’s highlight out of the way early. But no. Immediately after, ‘We’ took its place. It’s a darker, dingier song than we have had on any of the previous Bon Iver albums and is one of several times on the record where Vernon seems to offer some more personal and poignant lyrics than he has before. And the highlights were to keep coming. The stunning ‘Holyfields’, the simple but affecting ‘Naeem’, and the utterly anthemic ‘Salem’. All three show Vernon on top form, and none more so than ‘Salem’. As many of his best songs do, it builds and builds until an emotional crescendo that you would have to made of stone not to react to.
And just as you think it’s reached all the heights it’s going to reach, the album ends with ‘RABi’. It’s an absolute work of art. Even when starting with a frank admission of a fear of death, it becomes something so unbelievably joyful that you’ll want to challenge the haters to ever call Bon Iver depressing again. Along with ‘Hey Ma’, it is the album’s standout song and one of the best of his career so far.
This was an album that was heavily billed as a collaboration. It features the likes of Aaron Dessner, Moses Sumney, Bruce Hornsby, and Jen Wassner. But what it feels like instead is his most personal work to date and a showcase of Vernon at his very best – the most consistently good thing he has put out since For Emma, Forever Ago. ‘U (Man Like)’ might be the one bum note, but when someone is consistently pushing himself like this you can allow the odd misstep. i,i, on the whole, is majestic.
Words by Fran Slater