Justin Vernon appeared out of the cold Wisconsin woods back in 2007 and won over our hearts with an album filled with his scratch and dent white boy soul, earnest heartbreak songs, and a DIY approach that sounded honest and raw. For Emma, Forever Ago, a nothing left to lose record for Vernon, was him escaping to the wilds of Wisconsin to a family-owned cabin where he wrote songs of heartbreak and loss and ended up becoming the poster boy for indie rock.
From there, Vernon took his Bon Iver project to the heights of music stardom, rubbing elbows and collaborating with everyone that was someone. Everywhere you looked Vernon was putting his falsetto on tracks from Kanye West to Gayngs. Self-titled Bon Iver was the pinnacle, with Vernon assembling a large studio band and building a huge record of well ornamented songs with established musicians. It was the complete opposite of what came before.
Then Justin Vernon walked away for a few years.
In 2016 Bon Iver returned with 22, A Million. A huge shift in sound from the orchestrated folk rock that came before. Taking a cue from Radiohead’s Kid A and the electronic music world, Justin Vernon made an album of robotic beats and vocoder’d vocals that felt detached and pained, but still very much Bon Iver.
Bon Iver has returned with i,i, an album that meshes perfectly the earnest songwriting of earlier records while keeping the electronic vibes of 22, A Million. The result is the best of both worlds, and Justin Vernon’s best album to date.
It took awhile for me to find an in with Justin Vernon’s electronic sound. 22, A Million, while sounding very forward thinking, was at first nearly impenetrable for me to get through. It sounded cold and detached, and had only slight strands of Justin Vernon’s soulful sound. Eventually I realized that was the point. I think Vernon felt detached from himself, and the music was an extension of that detachment. i,i sounds like Vernon coming to some sort of peace with what came before and the fame that pushed him away. This album combines all aspects of his Bon Iver sound, letting the humanity shine through the robotic sheen.
“iMi” opens the album sounding like Oneohtrix Point Never and FKA Twigs going folk. Soon enough Vernon’s soulful croon appears and a warmth and familiarity comes over the track. If there is one superpower to Bon Iver its Vernon’s vocal prowess. He conveys so much in that falsetto. And instead of exploiting it, he chooses to use it carefully, surrounding it with intriguing production. “We” is built with a mysterious production. Slinky rhythm, horns, and vocals front and center, Vernon builds a dark slab of soul and R&B. “Hey Ma” is the most upfront song lyrically and production-wise. It’s just this beautifully open-hearted song that shows Justin Vernon as one of the best songwriters we have, and one of the most intriguing in the studio as well.
“U(Man Like)” revisits Bon Iver’s Bruce Hornsby love with Hornsby playing piano and singing. There’s a who’s who list of guest musicians, including Hornsby, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, James Blake, Moses Sumney and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus scattered through the album. It works to make i,i the unique and amazing listening experience that it is.
Justin Vernon has come a long way from that cabin in the Wisconsin woods back in 2007. i,i is the culmination of the journey taken in 12 years. i,i is a forward-thinking pop record that sees Bon Iver solidifying its place as a band pushing its musical art as far as it can go.
8.4 out of 10