Bon Iver – i,i
Indie Rock | Electronica | Baroque Pop
Although their music has bubbled away just beneath the mainstream, Bon Iver is undoubtedly one of the most important musical projects of our time. Certainly in terms of their wide ranging influence in inspiring other artists, the full extent of which we may not truly grasp for years to come. A large driving force behind this has been a willingness to change and evolve. From the introspective folk of For Emma, Forever Ago, to the cinematic baroque pop of their self titled record, to the eclectic electronica of 22, A Million; there is a Bon Iver for everyone. Justin Vernon and co have never been content to sit still, always looking to expand their sound, work with new collaborators, and dive headlong into bold new directions. Taking risks is something of a rarity in music these days, but Bon Iver have consistently done so, and done it well, opening themselves up to more new fans as their repertoire expanded.
All of that brings us to i,i. Following three consecutive game-changing albums is no mean feat, and no one would begrudge the band dropping the ball while trying to keep that streak going. What does feel odd though, is the way they’ve done it. If they had continued the march of progress and gone one experiment too far I’d still admire their ambition, but instead this latest record seems content to take a step backward. Stylistically it bridges the gap between the eponymous record and 22, A Million; almost as though it was meant to sit between them and was released out of sequence. I’m a big believer in cohesive albums, in the feeling that this particular group of songs are meant to be together, and that just isn’t the case here. A lot of the time it feels more like a collection of off-cuts from the previous records. Trying to be every facet of the band at once, but generally proving to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
As frustrating as it is that i,i plays it safe and lacks purpose, I would in no way call it a bad album. But I would certainly call it their most inconsistent album. While it may be bookended by forgettable offerings that leave little impression, at its heart lies some of Justin and the gang’s strongest songs to date. Carried by the unmistakable piano work of Bruce Hornsby, ‘U (Man Like)’ pulls you in as one of their most accessible works, and its little hints of gospel are the glorious icing on the cake. The soulful intro of ‘Naeem’ gives way a cathartic cacophony of percussion and a burst of brass, while ‘Faith’ stands as the record’s true crowning glory. Easily the most triumphant and uplifting song of the year, and perhaps their best work yet. These outstanding moments make i,i an essential listen despite its issues, but sadly aren’t enough to keep it from living in the shadow of the great works that came before it.