Review Summary: Every daemon decoded, every day de-numbered
A note about Bon Iver's song titles. There's been more silly griping about the Aphex Twin impenetrable thing than was perhaps necessary – I am as guilty of this as any of us – but it struck me listening to "iMi" and realising what those letters meant that there's a straightforward reason for all that crypticism. Justin Vernon wants to confuse and disarm your higher thinking so his music will go straight to the heart, which is the place from where he wants you to hear it.
As such, for all i,i
's initial chaos, there are shockingly simple axes on which these songs turn. So while "iMi" seems a direct descendant of 22, A Million
's fragmented aesthetic and "We" plays like a cut from an alternate universe where Bon Iver and Kanye made a rap group, the album unfurls into something gentler with "Hey, Ma" and largely stays that way. "Naeem" is not only a clear highlight and one of the best songs Vernon has composed, it kicks off a song cycle which seems to investigate the major thematic concerns of the Bon Iver project – love ("Marion"), responsibility and accountability ("U" and "Jelmore") and uh, "Faith" - as straightforwardly as the self-titled album catalogued places he'd been. There's some politics, a less-trodden area for Bon Iver but communicated with grace: "Sh'Diah", a very Bon Iver anagram for 'shittiest day in American history', takes three years of anger and disenfranchisement, far too potent to be summed up in any words, and lets a saxophone do the talking instead. Vernon's degree in religious studies would qualify him to write about the subject more than most in the scene, but that always comes subservient to his own beautifully expressed ambivalence. And while nothing here cuts to the bone as cleanly as "I'm still standing in the need of prayer", the harmonisation of hope and doubt when Vernon writes about religion is still second to none, as when "Faith" puts aside the higher questions and rips your heart out with a line: "and do we get to hold what faith provides？ Fold your hands into mine".
There's no more obvious signal of Bon Iver's progression as a project than, well, its literal evolution into a band. For Emma
purists lament the loss of intimacy of that album; a connection made by Vernon's recording in a cabin that has, somewhat ridiculously, become an honest-to-god indie myth and not just four walls and a roof where he recorded some really good songs. Truth is, none of that intimacy has gone, just the direction it's flowing has changed. Bon Iver today has traded that one-to-one, man-to-listener intimacy for the many-to-many intimacy shared between Vernon's circle of collaborators. Just hear the way that acoustic in "Marion" plays off six-piece horns recorded basically live; how "iMi" slams together a brass freakout, some James Blake wildness (vocal and instrumental) and that peaceful hook from Justin; when that fucking beat drops on "Faith"; or "Holyfields," a near-improvisation which achieves greatness when a simple violin transforms the song.
Even if the album at points can drift too far into the abstract, there is a final exhale to ground us once again. "RABi" is the most unvarnished Bon Iver's been since 2009, and not just musically, though the electric guitar strum is so relaxing it gives "Island in the Sun" a run for its money. But the lyrics could be a personal note addressed from Vernon to his audience without even a hint of artistic intervention. "Well it's all just scared of dying", he basically sums up Bon Iver, the anxieties romantic and spatial and religious that have plagued him since the beginning of this project - then defines i,i
's response to these with one more line: "well it's all fine and we're all fine anyway". This album plays as the sober morning after 22, A Million
's headspin of a night out, the moment after waxing rhapsodic about the mysteries of life, death and religion when you fold your clothes and get on with the damn day. In this way, it's a refutation of its predecessor as much as "these will just be places to me now" was a moment of closure to Bon Iver, Bon Iver
's travelogues, themselves a conscious evolution from the singular place and time which birthed For Emma, Forever Ago
. Justin Vernon may be uniquely talented in mixing disparate sounds into one package, but he can only do so by burning some bridges and salting the earth as he goes – leaving previous selves behind him on the way. This tricky, fickle, strange dedication to emotional progress is what defines Bon Iver, makes them so uniquely, irrefutably human, and so goddamn touching even when you can't understand what a single lyric means.
"But on a bright fall morning, I'm with it
I stood a little while within it"