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Published on November 18th, 2019 | by voxx

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Bon Iver – i, i

Bleeding-edge sonics you can hum along to…

Justin Vernon’s 12-year journey from heartbroken woodshedder recording solo in the Wisconsin wilderness to his current status as leader of the arena-filling full band Bon Iver has been a captivating, if perhaps unlikely one. As an on-stage presence – bearded, balding, unafraid to rock a bandana, “cans” clamped to his cranium – he has become the headphones-wearing head.

But with as many devotees as he’s gathered along the way, others have found his output equally challenging. 2016’s 22, A Million repositioned him as something akin to a post-electronica Peter Gabriel, wilfully committing vocals to purposely chewed-up cassettes, but, in transit, there was some melodic loss.

This fourth album, with its typo title (see also cat-tiptoeing-over-the-keyboard track names such as ‘Yi’, ‘iMi’ and ‘RABi’), starts off sounding as if it may well be a sister album to its predecessor, opening in a familiarly unfamiliar way with a verité recording of Vernon experimenting with some mutant vocal sample played through an amp, punctuated by blasts of white noise. The three tracks that follow are equally tangential (and likely forbidding for those who miss the accessible tunes from For Emma, Forever Ago). But with the aching cri de Coeur of ‘Hey, Ma’, there’s a crack in the aural clouds: sunlight spills through.

For all that Vernon’s cut-up lyrics are beyond oblique, often a line or two will throw an emotional punch. ‘RABi’ eavesdrops on a heavy, possibly stoned conversation (“Well, it’s all just scared of dying…”), while the gentle balm of ‘Faith’ closes with a confession, “I’m not all out of mine.” More direct still is Prince-like gospel piano ballad ‘Man (U Like)’. Prefaced in its funny, inventive lyric video – featuring cartoon faces with penis noses – as a “song to every bd man”, it skewers predatory males with a message: “Man like you/Man, improve.” The fact that guest singers – Moses Sumney, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, even Bruce Hornby – each take a line only enforces its consensus power.

Production-wise, i, i never sounds less than excellent, with wide-open acoustic/electric audio structures allowing pizzicato strings to waft through and rising clouds of horns to blow in unexpectedly. It really is bleeding-edge stuff: its digital manipulations of sound proving bytes can still yield analogue warmth and beauty. Vernon’s often falsetto voice brims with soul, as in the moving future R&B of ‘Salem’ and the Peter Gabriel III echoes of ‘Naeem’, our panicked protagonist, after “a bad, bad toke”, seeming to tune into desperate voices (“I can hear, I can hear crying”).

The fact that the comparatively “difficult” 22, A Million managed to reach Number 2 in both the UK and US is testament to the power of Bon Iver’s headspinning music. This record, due to the return of the earworms, will surely top it commercially.

- By Jake White


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