“When the sun starts to set, what happens is you start gaining perspective. And then you can put that perspective into more honest, generous work,” says Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver’s first record since 2016.
A seasonal cycle that began with the heart-sick winter of ‘For Emma’, moving through ‘Bon Iver’ and ‘22, A Million’, arrives at a conclusion here, in the self-proclaimed autumn of ‘i, i’.
A project originally conceived in solitude, Vernon’s since expanded the Bon Iver family to encompass an evolving bunch of musicians, sharing space with contributors Aaron Dessner, James Blake and Velvet Negroni.
Some things remain the same, like the need to nest in one place, getting under the skin of the sound. Immersed in recording, Vernon stayed inside Sonic Ranch studios in Texas for six weeks – using five rooms of the studio, sometimes simultaneously.
It’s an individualistic record, albeit created collectively. Song titles are cryptic sequences of letters and punctuation marks, coded in hieroglyphics known only to him. It bursts open with Yi’s audio collage of spliced sounds before second track stand-out, iMi, cuts through the clouds - a gorgeous slide into an unconventional love song.
Lyrics come through in snatches, honeyed and impassioned. "Time and again, time to be brave” he implores, “I like you and that ain’t nothing new”. The euphoric, piano-driven “U (Man Like)”, featuring Moses Sumney, employs Vernon’s piercing falsetto to warming effect.
Whilst the tinkering sometimes feels pointedly obtuse, the layered textures fizz with ideas. Vernon works with a musical magic box that’s deeper than most, infusing hip-hop production with inventive instrumentation – the glitching ‘Jelmore’ delights with little fluting sax bursts and a surrealistic bent to the lyrics (“a gas mask on his arm”); RABi tip-toes in on pizzicato strings.
This is a sound of a warm, human futurism. A record that feels impressionistic and abstract, dominated more by feeling than theme. Heavy sounds deployed deftly. Sometimes it feels a little fragmented (like on the slightly off-kilter swagger of ‘We’). But as he muses on the determinedly epic 'Faith', “at dawn we ain't mazes, just some kind of pages”.
A cycle that opened ten years ago has closed. And the concluding chapter is a world away from its beginnings – brimming with ideas, textures and the creative heft of its contributing cast. Let’s see what he does next, thawed from that winter’s chill.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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