These days, few singer-songwriters come as universally acclaimed as Wisconsin native Justin Vernon. Since debuting his now prodigious outfit Bon Iver over ten years ago with the indie folk classic For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon has become a somewhat elusive yet widely admired figure, keen to avoid ever being in the public eye for too long, appearing every so often for tours and to present his latest musical reconfiguration.
Unlike the sulky, atmospheric folk tunes that infused his band’s early work, Vernon’s latest artistic endeavors have leaned more heavily on studio tricks than raw performances, consistently incorporating elements of ambient and electronic music. Vernon’s newest creation under the Bon Iver name ventures further down that path. His new record i,i is a compelling collection of immersive art-pop tunes and experimental ballads that hone in on Vernon’s voice and the surreal soundscapes his mind seemingly never runs out of.
His follow up to Bon Iver’s glitch-folk opus 22, A Million, i,i is less about noise and more about the songs themselves. Where 22 came together like a mood board of fragmented ideas, Bon Iver’s latest allows the tunes at the core of Vernon’s writing to work in harmony with instrumental choices that are both lush and serene, such as on the blissful opening track “iMi.”
As with on past records, Vernon is no stranger to infusing his songs with various degrees of a “full-band” sound. “iMi” is one of many cuts that utilizes a trumpet section and other to help establish a colorful fusion of styles. Similarly, “We” brings in a rich bassline and beautiful horn passages that signal jazz fusion far more than they do folk, although Vernon’s vocal melody is a bit awkward and gets in the way of an otherwise gorgeous mix.
More often than not though, Vernon’s songwriting shines and it’s hard to argue that i,i doesn’t produce some of his most captivating songs to date. The most engulfing cut on the tracklist, “Hey, Ma” makes use of rich, swirling synthesizers to construct a near-intoxicating atmosphere. It’s one of Vernon’s most enveloping compositions in the entire Bon Iver catalog.
The subsequent track “U (Man Like)” is a singable piano ballad that melds ambiance and adoration, with Vernon altering between double track harmonies and singular, stripped back vocal lines, only before bringing in a choir to finish the track off strong. “Naeem” completes the stellar three-track run thanks to an eruption of glistening guitars and racing percussion, with Vernon underneath, emphatically yelping the lyrics “I can hear crying.”
i,i is decidedly more artsy than any previous Bon Iver album. Its production credits and features includes the likes of James Blake and Moses Sumney, two contemporary minds whose specialties nod to the creative direction Vernon clearly wanted to take on his new project. This impressionist vision especially comes to fruition on “Faith,” which slowly builds from a gentle acoustic ditty to a power-folk hymn, mixing in sporadic jolts of static, chopped up vocal samples and other uplifting bits of jamming.
Perhaps the most impressive singer-songwriter cut of all is “Marion,” which directs the spotlight to Vernon’s heart wrenching lyrics of loss and longing. The stillness of the track is further emphasized when his cracking voice lingers after the final note. Additionally, both “Salem” and “RAbi” leave a fixed impression as soaring ballads of hope, with the latter featuring one of the album’s hookiest refrains.
Elsewhere, the record features a number of musical detours that opt for a more traditional ambient aesthetic. “Holyfields,” and “Jelmore” find Vernon self-hamornizing over schizoid-like instrumentals. These cuts are interesting as mood pieces, but achieve little more than contributing to the album’s sound pallet. The lone exception comes on “Sh’Diah,” which quietly submerges the listener in a spacey, twinkling atmosphere.
Like all of Bon Iver’s previous albums, i,i arrives with a lot to unpack. With each layer of instrumentation and vocal manipulation, Vernon’s music offers substance in more ways than one. Whether it’s the rich, enveloping texture of the production or his opaque, enchanting lyrics, his songs continue to be a unique and enthralling experience.