Illustration by MIKKEL SOMMER
Twelves years ago, Justin Vernon emerged from a self-imposed isolation in the woods of Wisconsin and presented to the world his sadcore masterpiece For Emma, Forever Ago. Since then, Bon Iver has become a staple of indie-folk sound. His body of work always sounded to me like rustic lullabies, digestible background noise and easy to ignore. However, his latest album i,i breaks that pattern. Upon first glance, the tracklist appears senseless, made up of Biblical-sounding phrases and abbreviations. The song titles could be interpreted as poking fun at Vernon’s style of singing, the way he stretches vowels beyond recognition, muddling words into raw sound. There’s a possible nod to technological giant Apple with the repetition of stylized lowercase ‘i,’ like the slow dissolve of personhood into a distorted, digital self.
Sonically, the new album experiments with a blend of electronic and acoustic elements. Vernon clones himself on “iMi,” harmonizing with echoes of his own voice as it jumps between octaves, from rumbling bass to piercing soprano. “Holyfields” is filled with the hazy white noise of a blank television channel, while the choppy synths of “Jelmore” mimic the stutter and skip of a scratched record. “U (Man Like)” is a bursting gospel track that features Moses Sumney’s airy falsetto over soulful piano. Drums and trumpets rise to a roar on “Naeem” until the crescendo peters out sweetly. Songs like this round out the album, leaning into fuller-sounding instruments and orchestral elements reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens.
“Hey, Ma” is sensitive and optimistic, delving into childhood memory. The lyrics explore the theme of communication and the importance of connecting with other humans while the accompanying music video is a series of strung-together home videos of Vernon’s family. Vernon departs from his manipulated murmur on the album-closing “RABi” where his words come through clear and firm. He speaks to the fear of death that haunts all of us as he describes the sands of time slipping fast through a clenched fist. Vernon seeks shelter from fear and loneliness, grabbing the nearest person’s hand and clutching to life itself. — MARIAH HALL
PREVIOUSLY: Bon Iver @ The Met Concert Review