For Bon Iver’s fourth LP ‘i,i’, Justin Vernon wants to debunk the illusion that he and the project are one; a symbiont being. He’s keen to stress that Bon Iver is very much a collaborative unit, an endeavour that’s anchored by a rich roster of long-term peers including Chris Messina and Brad Cook, while pulling in The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, James Blake, Bruce Hornsby and a full host of talented contributors. To mirror the community notion of ‘i,i’ Vernon has been quoted “the title of the record can mean whatever it means to you or me. It can mean deciphering and bolstering one’s identity. It can be how important the self is and how unimportant the self is, how we’re all connected”. This sense of anything goes bleeds through Bon Iver’s latest output, from the revolving door of artists, the deliberately ambiguous album title and the rich, abstract sonic layers that make up the album’s 13 tracks.
‘i,i’ began its inception at Bon Iver’s cultural hub, April Base, but due to scheduled renovations, the unit decamped to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. Like a bunch of kids let loose in a sweet shop, Bon Iver utilised the facility to the max, by using it’s five studio live rooms, sometimes simultaneously. It’s this feeling of being unencumbered that gives the collective’s latest record it’s improvised and abstract quality. Opening track ‘Yi’ sets the tone, like a welcoming hand shake and hug, as you’re ushered into the band’s creative process; studio chatter is captured while the sound of static wafts in and out. Akin to peeking behind the curtain before the main event commences, this curtain raiser is very much Bon Iver hanging a sign on the studio door saying, “welcome one, welcome all”. ‘Yi’s garbled conversation and muffled noise glides into ‘iMi’s bubbling cauldron of disparate yet interconnected noises; synths and beats intertwine with autotuned vocals as rich layers of brass puncture the electronic flotsam and jetsam. The autotune is quickly removed to allow Vernon’s sumptuous vocal free, in full soulful flow. It’s jumbled and a little chaotic, but it’s all stitched together to create something vibrant and enriching. The notion of abstract and the deconstructed ripple through ‘i,i’ with a creative vitality; not one song begins and ends in the same fashion; each moment ebbs, flows, mutates, respawns and comes back to a close almost back to front to how it began. The album is like a jigsaw puzzle that’s been put together incorrectly, on purpose but the end outcome is better that what the predetermined plan was due to be.
Thematically, the listener is given free reign to take away what they want from ‘i,i’; like the abstract sonic tapestry the LP is woven into. ‘Holyfield’s static crackles and juddering pulses combine layers of electronics with a late arrival of quivering strings as Vernon states “coming in very late/just above our pay grade”. While ‘Jelmore’s oscillating noise gels together layers of brass and disorientating electronics, while the band’s main man reflects “we’ll all be gone by the fall”. A sound like an extra-terrestrial communicating via an old dial up modem shakes ‘Salem’s opening moments, before shuddering, click-clacking beats dip and weave through vapour-like layers of synth. Vernon’s evangelical croon pierces through the track’s heavenly, organic techno to ask plaintively “how’s it gonna be?”. Not all the record is deliberately obscure on the lyric front; ‘Sh’Diah’ – which stands for ‘Shittest Day in American History’ – three guesses to figure out what this song is about – glides on an improvised sea of tonal synth and a celestial glow, as Vernon’s disarming falsetto states “fear is rising up” as brass mournfully wails. The simplified piano ballad ‘U (Man Like)’, showcases our protagonist’s beautiful tones while pushing piano to the forefront, meaning all the layers of synth occupy the track’s background. In a call for unity, the singer announces “Girl/I know we set off for a common place” as a choir of voices swoon. All the facets of ‘i,i’ converge on ‘Naeem’ – piano patterns occupy the same orbit as jerky beats and minuscule electronic clips and ticks; as Vernon profoundly declares “you take me out to pasture now/no I won’t be angry long” as if to be at peace for whatever the future holds.
It would seem Vernon and co are completely untethered from pressures and barriers; ‘i,i’ is the true sound of creative freedom.
Words and Thoughts of Adam Williams