Bon Iver: i, i (Jagjaguwar) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, December 7th, 2019  

Bon Iver

i, i

Jagjaguwar

Aug 14, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There's some music that when you hear it for the first time, it feels like it's always been around, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether. Other albums are so revolutionary that when you first hear them, they sparkle with newness, and your ears are constantly perked up by a new sound or lyric or subtle touch, and this uniqueness melts into warmth over time, a familiarity (Radiohead is the best and most successful example of this). Over the past couple of albums, Bon Iver falls into a whole other category, where the music is so unrecognizable that on each listen it feels like being shocked all over again. You could challenge someone to sing a Bon Iver song, and they'd likely come up with pieces, flashes, moments, but hardly a whole track. On i,i, this reaches a new peak.

After a dozen or so listens, you can anticipate a half-second or so ahead, as the songs are so loaded and busy that it's difficult to maintain much of a memory of them. It's often unsettling (purposefully so, you would guess). That said, there's something truly remarkable about this. There's nothing else that sounds like Bon Iver, even though at times you can pick apart the influences Justin Vernon has cribbed from collaborators and inspirations alike. To be resetting and readjusting moment to moment within a single songthe disjointed squeaks and bleats of horns and keyboards and outright flashes of static constantly shock you awake, and force you to listen.

The deciding force, then, is how compelling you find Vernon's voice and lyrics. Because that's the warmth that's trying to hold it all together. The naked heart of For Emma, Forever Ago has been the thread tying together all of his work since (and, one could easily argue, the narrative that made him famous), and has allowed Vernon to experiment, for better or for worse, by surrounding that emotion with increasingly challenging music.

The most successful songs on i,i are those that bury the soundscapes behind the vocals, and not the other way around. "U (Man Like)" brings in a chorus and is driven by a Steve Winwood-esque piano figure. "Hey, Ma" is probably the best mixture of musicianship and singing, but the star is the simplicity of the lyrics, "I waited outside/And you took me in the room/And you offered up the truth," and how well he portrays a moment in time. The exemplary "Faith" is one of the most energizing songs in the Bon Iver catalogue, rising out of the mist to find some true catharsis. On the other hand, the high-pitched and disjointed "Jelmore" buries some of Vernon's best lyrical work. Throughout, Vernon's voice is less treated than on previous records, and this more natural sound offers i,i a stronger backbone.  

Vernon has never been shy about laying bare the sweat and hard work behind his songs. The seams are very often showing, the effort laid bare. It can be pretentious, surely, and has a look-at-me quality ("What's there to pontificate on?" he asks in "Naeem," which is a hilarious line, though the song is a extraordinarily passionate plea.) that such a massive talent doesn't need to resort to, but the fact that he's doing things no one else would consider, much less succeed at, and that he still, a dozen years in, has enough ideas to overstuff a song, to switch tactics mid-track, makes him a singular artist in an era full of sameness, retreads, and sequels. He's always taking a big swing. That alone is worth celebrating, but when he hits the mix right on i,i, all of these high-minded thoughts go out the window, and Bon Iver rises to something truly inspiring. (www.boniver.org

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10



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