Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Well it’s all just scared of dying,” Justin Vernon sings on “RABi,” the closing track of Bon Iver’s new album, i,i. It’s not that far a leap to say that much of what has preceded that moment on the album, the urgency and anguish, the benevolence and redemption, comes from the motivation suggested by that line. Whatever it takes to jar us out of complacency, as “RABi” closes out with the admonition, “If you wait it won’t be undone.”
That’s one interpretation, anyway. Vernon has never been one to hand it to listeners on a plate, and this album, his fourth under the Bon Iver banner, keeps up that tradition. That means you get inscrutable song titles and word soup in the lyrics. If you try too hard to glean meaning from phrases like “phallic repetition” or “anorberic dream,” you might strain yourself. Better to just follow the sound along until it leads you to a line that cuts through the misdirection, like when he sings “And 1 by 1 by 1 we’ll all be gone” in “Jelmore.”
Once again, Vernon has pulled together an impressive list of collaborators from all walks of the music world, including indie-rock darlings, hip-hop producers, and one esteemed member of the Range: Bruce Hornsby’s unmistakable piano sets the tone for “U (Man Like).” It might seem that all these strange musical bedfellows could make for an uneasy mix, but Vernon’s ingratiating melodies ground these songs and keep them from drifting into abstractions.
Musically, the acoustic guitar that once was the driving force of Vernon’s narratives is largely backgrounded once again; when it does take a lead role on “Faith,” it sounds practically foreign. Much of i,i is comprised of warm-jet synths, Morse code beeps, and horns that burble up and flitter about. The lack of a standard rhythm sections on most songs lends the arrangements a weightless, ethereal feel, clearing plenty of space for Vernon’s pronouncements.
Moments of warmth, beauty and import are abundant on i,i. “Faith” does a good job of staking out the limits of believing in something intangible while making a convincing case for doing it anyway. “Salem” is one of many songs that emerges almost unexpectedly into an uplifting chorus, with the narrator defiantly promising, “I won’t lead no lie.” And it’s hard to imagine any moment of any song capturing the current political and social maelstrom as well as “Naeem,” which builds to a cacophony, Vernon in the center of it all, singing, “I can hear crying.”
At one point during “Faith,” he sings, “Fold your hands in to mine.” i,i is an album that pulls you in much closer than arm’s length, and that’s the fascinating thing about Bon Iver right now. Even as Vernon and his cast of thousands get further and further from the relatively simple, backwoods folkie sound that originally brought him to the forefront, he is making music that, far from being strange, is actually as inviting as anything he has ever done.