Bon Iver’s ‘i, i’ — a first-impressions album review
Justin Vernon emerged out of the cabin with the first Bon Iver album back in 2007 when indie folk was at a high. He’s since successfully (and smartly) avoided going the way of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers and instead embraced indie's shift to pop, hip hop, and R&B without losing the charm that fans fell in love with on For Emma, Forever Ago. Hardly a year goes by where Justin Vernon isn't insanely prolific, thanks to several side projects (including essential albums with Volcano Choir and Big Red Machine) and countless collaborations, and when he finally returns to Bon Iver, it's always to make a massive leap. The bare-bones For Emma was followed by the ambitious, fleshed-out art folk of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), which was followed by the glitchy, R&B-tinged art pop of 22, A Million (2016). Now he's back once again with the fourth Bon Iver album, i, i.
Justin made the new album with help from tons of talented friends (including James Blake, Aaron & Bryce Dessner of The National, Channy Leaneagh of Polica, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Moses Sumney, and more), and it's full of gorgeous arrangements fueled by soaring horns and thunderous percussion, beautiful pop hooks, adventurous song structures, and Justin Vernon's distinct, lovable voice tying everything together. It would be impressive to hear any artist pull this off; the only thing is, we've heard Justin pull this kind of thing off plenty of times before. i, i kind of finds the middle ground between Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million, and these songs wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Big Red Machine album or the latest Volcano Choir album either. i, i covers some pretty interesting ground, but it's the first time a Bon Iver album hasn't been a huge leap from its predecessor.
You've seen this before: an artist follows an impossibly great run of albums with an album that's -- relatively speaking -- just good, and it feels like a let down. i, i would be perceived as shockingly good if it was a new band's debut album, and it would probably feel like a greater achievement if it was released quickly after Bon Iver, Bon Iver or released as one of Justin's lower-stakes side projects, but it's a little underwhelming as the fourth Bon Iver album. The songs all sound pretty on the surface, and the complex arrangements remind you just how talented Justin and his friends really are, but i, i mostly lacks the emotional gut-punch of For Emma, the cathartic climaxes of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the utter weirdness of 22, A Million. (The songwriting is still unconventional as far as pop music and even a lot of indie rock goes, but it's a much more straightforward album than 22, A Million.) There are standout moments that recall the best parts of the first three albums -- the crackling James Blake guest vocals on "iMi" would've fit snugly on 22, A Million, the arena-sized buildup of "Naaem" and the gorgeous melancholy of "Faith" make for what could've been great Bon Iver, Bon Iver outtakes -- but the impactful moments tend to be outweighed by the moments that are kind of just there. Justin Vernon is such a unique artist and his fingerprints are always strongly felt whenever he touches anything, so the songs on i, i still scratch that unique itch that only his music can scratch, but there's something left to be desired. With a few exceptions, the songs on this album feel like they're after something that they never seem to catch.
That all said, this album hasn't even been in the world for 24 hours yet and it very well may be a grower, as "good albums by great artists" often are. Sometimes it takes years or decades for albums like this to sink in, especially if an artist slows down their output or ceases it entirely, leaving us with nothing to do but dive even further into the material they left us with. And even if i, i is not a major leap from any of its predecessors, it does still have a distinct aura to it. It's more synthetic than For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver but earthier than 22, A Million. And even while making room for endless ideas and collaborators, it's not scatterbrained. It's a very focused album, one where Justin's love of atmospheric balladry feels like the driving force. It's also perhaps the album where Justin's natural voice is more in the forefront than any other Bon Iver album. He still utilizes his angelic falsetto and some vocal manipulation, but he's often singing loudly and clearly in his natural range, and if you find yourself wanting to hear that side of him, this might be the first Bon Iver album you'd reach for.
Every song on i, i except the 31-second intro track is streaming now, along with a video, and the whole album gets its official digital release tonight at midnight (8/9) via Jagjaguwar. The physical release is set for August 30. Listen/watch all of the videos in the YouTube playlist below, or listen to a Spotify embed of the album. Also, catch Bon Iver on his first-ever arena tour this year.