On “i,i”’s third single “Faith,” Justin Vernon remarks that “this year’s a visitor.” The angelic voices of the Brooklyn Youth Choir follow as Vernon affirms that his faith is not yet gone, and the magnificent pantheism of Bon Iver comes into full focus. The cycles of nature and ego are one and the same in the world of Bon Iver. So when the trailer for “i,i” likens the record to the arrival of autumn, we can just as well interpret the album as the completion of a long personal journey.
That’s exactly what “i,i” feels like, both contextually and sonically. Written and recorded by Vernon in a snowed-in cabin in the woods of Wisconsin following an avalanche of unfortunate life events, Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” and its lore feel simultaneously close and distant now, much like how the January of a tumultuous year feels by the following autumn. After expanding the Bon Iver sound and cast of collaborators with “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Vernon and co. returned in 2016 with “22, A Million.” Cacophonous yet serene, robotic yet painfully human, the record portrayed a deeply personal journey of losing one’s identity in order to find it again.
Bon Iver’s fourth LP picks up right where “22, A Million” left off. On the last album, Justin Vernon’s voice finally became clear after seven tracks of glitchy auto-tune, a rediscovered identity emerging from the chaos of boiling anxiety. His first vocals on “i,i” are just as clear, with the staticky intros of “Yi” and “iMi” ushering in Vernon’s album-opening reflections on the “22, A Million” era: “Living in a lonely way had me looking other ways.” He sings over a tenderly picked acoustic guitar before launching into his signature falsetto, preaching that he “stood a little while in it,” that he had to actively live through the agony of not knowing his identity in order to find it. A community of electronics and strange voices then wash over Vernon’s raw performance, and as a chorus of saxophones and horns build the track to its finale, every piece of “For Emma”, “Bon Iver,” and “22” is suddenly put on display at once as the defining memories of the Bon Iver identity.
This blend of Bon Iver’s many sounds shines throughout the album, and it serves brilliantly to express the exhaustion, relief and clarity that follows Justin Vernon’s turbulent chapter of self-discovery. The saxophones that colored “22, A Million” imbue “We” with a confident swagger. The dreamscape of “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” enlivens lead single “Hey, Ma.” The soft guitar and layered falsetto of “For Emma, Forever Ago” reemerges on “Marion.” The result is a record that will please any fan of Bon Iver.
The most distinctive feature of “i,i” is Vernon’s newfound appreciation for the people in his life. Though the Eau Claire native has collaborated with dozens of artists over the years — some with more success than others — this is the first time these collaborators have featured on a Bon Iver record, with familiar friends like James Blake, Francis Starlite and the Dessner brothers appearing throughout. Wye Oak singer and new Bon Iver member Jenn Wasner explained in an interview that “when you get comfortable with yourself, you start to realize the thing that brings meaning to your life is actually other people,” and this sentiment is felt with every feature on “i,i”.
Also for the first time in Bon Iver’s discography, themes bigger in scope than ego and relationships make appearances. Now that Vernon has settled into himself, he can begin to express his views on political issues such as climate change and the 2016 election. “Holyfields” and “Jelmore” focus on the environment as Vernon asks, “How long will you ignore the heat?” He belts out “Keep it rational!” on “Sh’Diah,” which Vernon has been unafraid to clarify stands for “Shittiest Day In American History” and refers to the day Trump was elected. Here Mike Lewis’s passionate saxophone work recalls 2016’s “21 M◊◊N WATER”; however, instead of descending into chaos like the “22, A Million” track did, “Sh’Diah” wears a calm demeanor, hitting home the settled and content self-security that defines “i,i.”
Over 12 years ago, Justin Vernon begged “Come on skinny love, just last the year.” He’s been self-aware from the beginning, always understanding what step of the journey he’s taking but never sure if he could make it to the next one. Now, at the end of the year, with no next step and a journey completed, Bon Iver has finally found peace.