On “i,i,” the newest Bon Iver record, Justin Vernon is not the first voice listeners hear.
After an intro that evokes many of the similar sounds and samples of the band’s 2016 release “22, A Million,” Mike Noyce, in a very similar way to British producer and singer James Blake, who also appears on the track, flutters through the first lyrics of “iMi” amidst a voice changer. His quick-changing tenor builds to this electronic peak within the first 30 seconds, giving listeners their first “wow” moment, something Vernon has done often since he created Bon Iver in 2007.
But it was different than the wow moments he created on the self-titled album from 2011, or from “22, A Million.” It was fuller. It was bolder. It was bigger. And he brought friends along to do it.
Vernon combines aspects of the band’s entire discography, going from soft guitar moments to bombastic orchestration filled with horns and echoed drums to the electronic, sample-filled beats that he thrived on his last record. This combination, along with the different collaborators he uses like Blake and Bruce Hornsby, creates the perfect synopsis of what Bon Iver is.
As the track list continues, this idea remains.
From working with Wheezy, a producer who created beats for Young Thug and Future, on “We” or using Hornsby’s piano and Moses Sumney’s voice on the gospel-tinted “U (Man Like),” Vernon creates a larger sound, one that sounds new, but is familiar to those who have followed his work.
And like many Bon Iver songs in the catalog, Vernon and Co.’s lyrics, at times, are difficult to decipher and are incredibly complex. This album is no different, as the band addresses large social issues on “U (Man Like)” and “Hey Ma,” as well as the 2016 presidential election on “Sh’Diah,” which stands for “Shittiest Day in American History.”
However, where Vernon shines most is on the songs where he gets personally vulnerable, specifically regarding his approach to religion.
Serving as the best example musically of the conglomeration of sounds Bon Iver has created over the past 12 years, “Faith” is also the most powerful song on the album. Vernon addresses his faith and how it has changed, in some cases declined, as life continues, singing about how he does not have to hide from the subject.
Taking a similar approach as “iMi,” the song continues to build into the fourth verse, ending with an electronic sample singing, “So what if I lose? I’m satisfied” creating a glorious peak of both electric and acoustic guitar and a drum beat that seems like it’s straight from the self-titled record.
Vernon is not done with spiritual ideas, ending the album with “RABi,” which showcases his approach to organized religion and his “release” from it, addressing that he does not have a “leaving plan.”
If there is one thing that Bon Iver knows how to do, it’s create musical moments. From the looping electronic and the bass add-in on “Salem” to the repetitive chorus and third verse peak in “Naeem,” where Vernon pleads with the power at the top of his vocal range more than he’s ever done before.
Throughout “i,i,” the band shines, even if there may not be as much song-to-song flow as there has been in the past.
If there is an album that explains what Bon Iver has been over the past 12 years, both musically and lyrically, this is the one to listen to.