If you have somehow managed to sleep on Bon Iver for the past decade, now is the time to sit up and take notice. i,i feels like the culmination of everything Bon Iver has achieved sonically across For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver and 22, A Million. The latter will always be remembered as where Bon Iver pushed boundaries in what was possible with Justin Vernon’s own voice, turning the use of autotune into an art form in ways Kanye West could only aspire to in the divisive 808s and Heartbreak. 22, A Million is a seminal work in its own right, but i,i is where the learnings of the latter, and everything before it come home to roost. It is a more cohesive, confident album than anything Bon Iver have produced before, and at the same time, it feels like the most honest, something which Justin Vernon said himself in the lead up to the album’s release.
This will be a short review, if only because i,i challenges the very way I typically review. Where usually I would break tracks down individually, appreciating the parts as much as the whole, this record begs to only be understood as a whole. Though songs like ‘Naeem’ and ‘Salem’ are triumphant and bombastic in their own right (entirely in Bon Iver terms, of course), even without the tracks that precede them, the punch they pack is all the more effective with that build-up – and with the album’s tight 39-minute runtime, there’s no excuse not to sit down with the best headphones you have, close your eyes and let i,i consume you. Because it will, and you’ll be glad it did.
The staples of Bon Iver’s signature sound are all present and correct here; brass, acoustic guitar and piano alongside wavering electronic and synth, along with, at times, sharp blasts of white noise. The autotune of 22, A Million is paired down significantly here, though Vernon’s voice is still the strongest instrument in any composition you introduce it into. The subtlety and power he is able to extract from it continues to be astonishing. His vocal performance across four Bon Iver albums alone is an argument for the human voice being the best instrument we have. i,i also differs from the rest of Bon Iver’s discography in its seasonal tones. Where For Emma was undoubtedly wintter, Bon Iver spring, and 22, A Million summer, i,i is, you guessed it, autumnal. There’s a warmth to the album overall, delicately balanced with vulnerability, making it equal parts comforting and heartbreaking.
Long story short, or rather short story even shorter, i,i is an extraordinary album, but one that has a certain finality to it. Though Vernon hasn’t said so himself, it feels like this could be the swan song of Bon Iver as an endeavour. The discography feels complete now, a genuine accomplishment – an accolade I can’t lay at the feet of many other artists today. At the same time, this could be the start of a wild, entirely unexpected chapter in both Vernon and Bon Iver’s history. We’ll have to wait and see, but God do we have plenty to enjoy and dissect in the meantime.
i,i is out now via Jagjaguwar.