by Stewart Cheetham
It’s been almost three years since the last Bon Iver album- 22, A Million. In that time, when touring schedule has allowed, Justin Vernon has been growing and honing his fourth long-player i,i.
Bon Iver has come a long way since Justin Vernon wrote and recorded most of the 2007 acoustic debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, alone in a remote log cabin in the Wisconsin woods. For the second, self-titled album, Vernon added more musicians to the recording process, which produced a more polished and expansive sound. The experimental, auto tune soaked third effort 22, A Million saw the personnel list grow yet again. On new album – i,i – Vernon recruited over 25 musicians to be part of the creative process, the likes of which include Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Moses Sumney, James Blake and the Brooklyn Youth Choir.
Vernon’s Wisconsin April Base studio, where every album since the debut has been recorded, was once again used as the nucleus of his latest project. Songs and ideas grew organically from collaborations, and the record was finished off at what Vernon has referred to as six week long ‘art camp’ at Sonic Ranch recording studio in Tornillo, Texas – where artists were encouraged to work on their parts alone with Vernon cherry picking their best ideas. This way of working was spawned very much out of the collaborative ethos of Vernon’s and Aaron Dessner’s PEOPLE project.
This process reflects in the sound of the record. Song structures in the traditional sense have been abandoned and the disjointed forms that replace them create a home for these individual ideas. Acoustic guitars and horns fall in and out, guest vocalists deliver phrases then disappear. iMi opens with an autotuned, inaudible, but melodic vocal line that progresses into beautiful harmonies and fluttering sax. The real surprise is what comes in between this; everything falls away and Vernon’s falsetto appears front and centre accompanied by just an acoustic guitar harking back to the sound of the first couple of albums, which will be a welcome return for some after the sometimes harshly autotuned productions of 22, A Million. For all the collaborators, never does i,i feel cluttered or that Vernon is doing this just for the sake of it. On U (Man Like), the sparkling piano ballad is lifted to another level with the help of Jenn Wasner, Moses Sumney and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
This mix of past and present is most evident on single Hey Ma, which includes probably the most infectious chorus Bon Iver have written- Vernon sings, “Full time, you talk your money up, While it’s living in a coal mine, Tall time to call your Ma, Hey Ma” – which floats atop a fractured hip-hop like beat and hypnotic bleeps. Tracks Faith, Marion and RABi wouldn’t feel out of place on Bon Iver, however, this time round it feels delivered from a more calm, optimistic Vernon. The album closes with him stating, “Some life feels good now, don’t it? Don’t have to have a leaving plan.”
i,i has been referred to as Bon Iver’s autumn album: the fourth release representing the last of the four seasons. It feels like a natural culmination of the band so far, featuring all the best parts of the back catalogue that Vernon has carefully refined and brought together. He has produced something special that will no doubt be threatening the low numbers of many end of year lists.
Secret Meeting score: 88