Experimental, emotional, evocative — all three words would perfectly describe the music of American indie-folk band Bon Iver. On Friday, the collaborative coalition released its fourth full-length album, titled “i,i.” Featuring the band’s signature, multi-genre blend of sounds and textures that sets Bon Iver apart from other groups, the 13 tracks on “i,i” compose the most cohesive record released so far in 2019.
From start to finish, the album flows with no disruption from track to track, never wasting a second — even the silence between songs pulls at listeners’ emotions. In the middle of one of the hottest summers in history, it feels reasonable to imagine that no one’s disappointed Bon Iver provided more of its trademark “good winter” sound.
“i,i” comes two months after the group released a two-song prequel to the record, debuting “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like)” at All Points East. The tracks brought with them a promise of one more collection of the sonic elegance fans have come to expect from frontman Justin Vernon and the ever-changing host of band members he collaborates with. Bon Iver didn’t disappoint.
The band’s fourth album opens with a 32-second long intro track described by Vernon in an interview with Apple as “a phone recording of me and my friend, Trevor, screwing around in a barn, turning a radio on and off.” His description makes the 32 seconds sound entirely random, and to some degree, they are. “Yi” isn’t a song or even a real intro track. But the sound of two friends “screwing around” with a radio — all interspersed by Vernon, saying, “Are you recording, Trevor?” — illustrates the record’s highly collaborative spirit right at it’s introduction. “i,i” isn’t some magnum opus Vernon carefully crafted while locked away in a private villa. It’s a project built on shared creativity and musicality.
The first actual song is titled “iMi” — a haunting transitional piece using the radio sounds found on “Yi” to make the gap between songs entirely indiscernible. Starting from almost nothing, the song slowly builds itself up as Vernon’s typical phased, distorted vocals layer in among a mixture of acoustic guitars and synthesizers. “iMi” allows itself just a moment of climax before dropping all at once into quiet stillness — a trademark of Bon Iver’s song construction and production. And though iMi” is a song, it feels less like its own standalone track and more like an extended transitional piece between “Yi” and the rest of the record. That said, the album would feel incomplete without it.
These words open the “Holyfields,” chorus — “The dawn is rising / The land ain’t rising.” With the upcoming 2020 election, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to interpret them as being directed at U.S. citizens — a call to action, of sorts. Time is running out to make a change, yet nothing is changing.
Alongside its lyrics, “Holyfields,” displays many of Bon Iver’s musical calling cards. A hallmark of the band’s production is the presence of a constant ostinato — a continually repeated musical passage — at the base of a song. “Holyfields,” is a shining example of this. Throughout the track, a repetitive swelling and receding note can be heard underscoring everything happening around it. It also offers a departure from the highly edited vocals commonly found throughout Bon Iver’s discography, instead opting to feature Vernon’s voice, unedited and crystal-clear. It’s classic Bon Iver, yet refreshingly new at the same time.
Skipping past the two tracks released in June, “Hey, Ma” and “U (Man Like),” the record lands on my favorite number, the seventh song on the album, “Naeem.” It features some of the starkest writing on “i,i,” supported individually by a walking chord structure played on a mixture of pianos and synthesizers. Vernon’s vocals are only lightly multi-tracked, allowing the intricacies of his melodic lines and turns to be enjoyed in their entirety. Through lyrics, like “Oh my mind, our kids got bigger / But I’m climbing down the bastion now” and “Tell them I’ll be passing on / Tell them we were young mastodons / And it can’t be that it’s all,” Vernon and the other members of Bon Iver wrestle with bittersweet reflection on their lives.
As the song builds under the vocals with a vibrant snare drum pattern underscoring the harmonic progression, Vernon’s voice — and the vocal tracks singing in support of his lead part — grow increasingly frenzied, like one who’s realized they’ve let time slip by without taking the opportunity to experience its passage instead of merely acting as a passive observer.
One can’t discuss the meanings and intentions behind “i,i” without taking a moment to examine its penultimate track, “Sh’Diah.” In the same interview with Apple, Vernon reveals “It [Sh’Diah] stands for the Shittiest Day in American History — the day after Trump got elected.”
Musically, the song is a picturesque example of the gentle side of Bon Iver’s music. The track never rises above a soft level, instead choosing to weave itself around a circular piano progression and a layer of synthesizers that slowly shift from one tone to another, all in support of Vernon’s vocals and a light improvisational line played on an alto saxophone.
Lyrically, Bon Iver peacefully shares its thoughts on the vocal religious conservatism movement. He sings, “How often you gonna see me now / Truly what you cease to be / Will you adjust your scenery / Well, you find the time, don’t you, for the lord?” The song takes a reflective mood, asking nothing more from its listeners than to take a moment to consider how they view the world and its many facets.
From top to bottom, “i,i” is an impeccably drafted collection of songs — some of which are finely tuned studio creations while others are an illustration of the power of collective improvisation — that should stand as the defining precedent for what a well-put together, cohesive album sounds like.
Vernon’s remarks on the closing song of the album, “RABi,” eloquently wrap up the band’s intention with “i,i” — “There’s a lot to be sad about, there’s a lot to be confused about, there’s a lot to be thankful for. And leaning on gratitude and appreciation of the people around you that make you who you are, make you feel safe and provide that shelter so you can be who you want to be — there’s still that impetus in life. We need that.”
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.