It’s been a fascinating progression to follow, that Justin Vernon and his Bon Iver. From the solo moniker of legendary debut For Emma, Forever Ago, to the full band of self-titled follow up to what has become a veritable community of like-minded musicians with shared ambitions and ideas, Vernon acting as a creative director of sorts. With fourth full-length i,i, Vernon has brought in feature artists ranging from James Blake and Aaron Dessner to Bruce Hornsby and Moses Sumney with Kanye West-like attraction. Vernon’s talent has never been in question and Bon Iver’s records to date have been impeccable. His constant desire not to settle but to experiment and push boundaries is to be commended and i,i is bursting with this. While relatively brief at 40 minutes, it’s nonetheless 13 tracks constantly exploring new ways of processing, fiddling with, sampling and arranging his myriad ideas.
But for the first time here, his ideas haven’t quite formed into a cohesive whole. All the other records felt complete works, this feels more like a collection. For all that really works on i,i, there are moments that feel unnecessary or out of place. Vernon’s disciples will no doubt appreciate a sense of subverted expectations – it’s his bread and butter after all – but these for the sake of it don’t necessarily make a great album. For all the bells and whistles that he explored so readily on 22, A Million, and his ability to capture and utilize a fascinating range of beautiful sounds and instrumentation is remarkable, his biggest strength is still primarily as a songwriter. We discovered this to such wonderment on For Emma, and where he lets this shine on i,i is where the record really works. There are moments of real spellbinding beauty, featured most readily on the many lead in singles.
The likes of ‘Hey Ma’, ‘Naeem’ and ‘Faith’ consist of great melodies and shifting structures, Vernon’s constant tinkering ultimately secondary to and thus enhancing this solid base, these songs are all the better for it. But it does lag in moments when it feels like Vernon recording straight from the experiment room such as in ‘Jelmore’, while the likes of ‘Marion’ feels like an incomplete Vernon ballad. It feels a little like, where on previous records Vernon truly loved and was proud of his songs, here he is starting to love the process more. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it makes it harder for us, the listener, to truly love the songs either. Vernon is a unique talent, virtually everything he touches turns to gold and in that light i,i is a wonderful listen. It’s biggest flaw is that in a world of second rate and wannabe Vernons, we just expect so much more from the real deal.