Of the retold mythology that is now cliché to call cliché when trying to make further sense of the still allusive Bon Iver, the one aspect often casually omitted is what “Bon Iver” means. It’s the first puzzling, alluring tidbit most encounter for an artist that’s seemingly built out of culminating anomalies: the secluded cabin, the oddball Kanye West collaborations, the surprise Grammy win. All of that history has made the buzz around Bon Iver less like discussing an indie breakthrough and more like discussing some mystical spirit of music’s contemporary. And that’s all for good reason. It is rare that an artist can warrant a question like “what is Bon Iver?”.
Now, in the wake of Justin Vernon’s fourth installment in this still mysterious, twelve-year jigsaw, “who is Bon Iver?” became perhaps the next best question. And the “who” goes right back to the name “Bon Iver”, which Vernon has long restated isn’t merely his pseudonym. The name derives from Vernon’s intentional botching of the French “bon hiver”, or “good winter”, a phrase he adored the sound of but presumably not the presentation of on paper. This inception, simple as it may be, reveals a great deal about how Justin Vernon sees beauty, and how he creates it. The name is technically senseless in its picky, abbreviated state, but it denotes a world of mystique and intimacy despite this. It reads like a name, but then it’s challenging to even figure its pronunciation. It’s akin to Vernon’s lyrical passages: on this new record, “Sh’Diah” crams the concept of a historical date into its title, the “shittiest day in American history” as Vernon puts it, into a non-word that nevertheless contains and better amplifies the complex, frustrating feelings of Trump’s election.
The English language to Vernon is more about how the sound of his enunciation hits us rather than what’s literally spelled out, and the language of music takes on a different meaning more and more with each subsequent Bon Iver release. So, if one were to answer that stinging question, “what is Bon Iver?”, the best answer wouldn’t be snowcapped wood cabins or Grammy sweeps through drowsy, patient folk tunes. It would instead be a palette through which Justin Vernon allows us to question the parameters of all the language we tend to recognize. On his newest album, Vernon’s is not the only language we gain access to his collaborations all umbrella’d under the Bon Iver casing create the most luscious, full-sounding record of the outfit’s repertoire to date, finding beauty in an impersonal soundscape. But this terrain of evolution wasn’t unforeseeable. As was outlined in the press for the new record, i, i marks a certain closure, not to Bon Iver itself necessarily, but to the cycle of albums that started with a restrained, frosty debut. Where most artists would make trilogies of their album series, these chapters of the Bon Iver story comply more to an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme; four albums constructed from the four seasons, with For Emma, Forever Ago being as perfect a winter album as one could fantasize, and i, i concluding on an autumn that feels more metaphorical to the season’s implications than radiant of its weather. It’s fitting that both this new album and 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver come like reciprocations to their overwhelming predecessors. Both For Emma and 22, A Million, the abrasive, course-defying 2016 album, emerged from dark phases and recessions into solitude. i, i is the sound of blinds being opened, with the same distortions and polarizing genre mashes of 22, A Million as though they were retuned for peace and love. There are anger and bitterness in the prior record which Vernon opts to solve here, and his solution is to seek and sponsor community. Lead single “U (Man Like)” is a rich, upfront piano ballad that sounds like a group therapy session, a circle of estranged friends learning to love again. Vernon primes us to a cast of characters: Moses Sumney, Bruce Hornsby, and Jenn Wasner among others signal how open and airy production of multitalented artists i, i will be. The song is as much a warm hug as it is a deep breath before facing the path ahead.
The record’s moments of triumph aren’t the avalanching emotions and falsettos of previous Bon Iver outings. Here, heights are met through realizations of harmony: the instrumental clutter early in “Faith” or the fizzling before the final verse of “Hey, Ma”, clunky passages that are resolved through a metaphorical conversation. This makes for a less overwhelming climax, with no one sound or vocal ruling our focus. That makes i, i less initially soaring, without the bellowing, autotuned maximalism of 22, A Million’s brilliant first half, but it makes for an album that’s less headstrong.
The album’s fundamental openers, from the thirty-second “Yi” into “We”, mirror Bon Iver’s sophomore LP whilst setting the unique thematic guidelines of the record that follows. “I am, I am, I am”: a chorus that should be lonesome, or at least individualistic, but is instead delivered with lush harmony. “Living in a lonesome way had me looking other ways”, finds Vernon on the other end of his previous album’s opener, in which a pitch-shifted voice promised him in his moment of darkness, “it might be over soon”. “We” comes eerily similar to 2011’s “Minnesota, WI” with its tense, blunt charge. The song’s horn section comes to lift Vernon from the desperation of his chorus, with “Holyfields,” being a less snaky, mellower composition. Vernon’s falsetto singing brings on a string arrangement that beautifully conflicts with the song’s repetitious electronic pulse; at its most prominent moment, these strings sound lifted from a lost Radiohead recording.
On “Naeem”, Vernon seems to have spent enough time reflecting on his hardships that they come without the baggage they may have long ago. Gone are the bindings of pain, instead, Vernon is outside of his struggles. On the track, Vernon falls “off a bass boat” and is caught “having a bad, bad toke”. But the crying he and his chorus tell us they can hear doesn’t seem to be Vernon’s own. The song is aware that these rough patches are mutual. When the words “it won’t be very long” are sung against a hopeful guitar riff, it’s a message that goes from Justin to all his listeners without first settling on himself. “Jelmore” comes a bit tuneless but is too vibrant in its imagery to be labeled inessential. Vernon sings of “a thrift store manager with a poke camadee” (What’s a poke camadee? Your guess is as good as ours). The album’s more relaxed predispositions take center stage: “I’ll say no more, I won’t lead no calvary”. The album’s only true submission into the bombastic is “Faith”, an enlightening, soaring composition. “Fold your hands into mine,” Vernon pleads: spiritualism that requires tangible bondage rather than a bond between oneself and the invisible.
“Marion” is the song that best resembles Bon Iver before 22, A Million, an all-acoustic number with only light touches of brass during its final stretch. “Salem” is comparatively busy, full of indistinguishable but perfect electronic blips. The song is perhaps Vernon’s most motivational, but neither it nor the entire album feels preachy or overly secure with America’s future. Vernon is able to address, however abstractly, that the keys are in our hands, but require our action. The line “there’s no automatic peace” recalls back to Vernon’s crushing question on “Jelmore”: “How long will you disregard the heat?”. This culminates in the aforementioned “Sh’Diah”, a track which is more aftermath than a play-by-play of Trump’s inauguration day. Vernon looks at his fictionalized character and wonders how she can find time for the lord under such circumstances. The duel between Vernon and spiritual faith that’s lasted since 22, A Million reaches its peak when he comes forth, as if in confession: “I cannot just be a peach”. It’s unlikely that Vernon is contemplating the totality of this album when he sings, “So what of this release?”, but it seems fitting. Each track may leave a question unanswered, and yet there’s something so complete even about its confusions and unresolved inquiries. “Sunlight feels good now”, Vernon sings, as though the feelings of the last three Bon Iver albums have taken on a different meaning when the world outside of them is in such a state of disarray.
As “RABi” comes to a fittingly tempered finish, it becomes clear that i, i, even as the most unobvious of Bon Iver’s records, is perhaps the most perfect imaginable conclusion. There’s likely to be more Bon Iver and Justin Vernon output well into the future, but seldom do new albums so precisely reflect on a discography behind them whilst looking towards a future outside of music altogether.
For those who have loved and lived through the mystique of Vernon’s music, i, i is a colorful blend of the outfit’s sound with a thematic basis new to the primarily intimate and personal backlog up until this point. Newcomers to Justin’s music may find its fluid movement and timider qualities less exciting than starting on one of the prior three LPs, but it’s still maybe the most rewarding, careful sit of the entire batch, with enough space and instrumental flourish to make even the most tepid track never remotely close to uninteresting.