A man (bearded, crestfallen) traipses into the woods, where he holes up in a small cabin and writes music about his heartbreak — agonizingly vulnerable, earnest, intimate music, with whispery confessions and guitars so fine and fleeting they could be feelings themselves. Then, the music, his own attempt at catharsis, becomes famous, and the sad man in the cabin becomes a superstar. What’s more amazing is how the man (Justin Vernon) has refused to repeat himself, persistently and indefatigably redefining his aesthetic while retaining the earnestness that makes listeners feel as if each song is specifically for them. The ephemeral For Emma was followed by a more baroque pop opus, Bon Iver, Bon Iver; and then 22, a Million completely obliterated fan expectations of what a Bon Iver album should sound like, with its glitchy, almost sordid sound, still precise and personal but now processed and calibrated instead of captured. i,i is a (mostly) deft commingling of the older folk-pop and the newer electronic anxiety. If it doesn’t feel as audacious as the last three albums, it’s still an emotionally poignant and sonically dexterous endeavor.
Vernon writes about heartbreak and loneliness in a way that never loses sight of hope and never lapses into self-pity.
Vernon’s lyrics are replete with aphorisms and neologisms, his delivery distorting words beyond their normal meaning and his cadences emphasizing unexpected parts of his lines. The actual words and order, the sequence of verbs and nouns, remains alluringly ambiguous, which is why they feel so universal. On “U (Man like),” which features piano by Bruce Hornsby, Vernon sings, in that swoony yet sad falsetto: “With your long arms, try / And just give some time / Presently, it does include my dues / Ain’t your standard premonitions / All this phallic repetition / Boy, you tell yourself a tale or two.” Some songs are simpler — “Marion” and “Holyfields” could be culled from For Emma — and some, like “Naeem,” are deftly layered, a panoply of instruments and manipulated sounds coalescing into something triumphant. It’s Vernon’s most eclectic album: “Sh’Diah,” culminates in the cry of a forlorn horn, desperate for someone to listen to its lament, while “Jelmore” features synths that recall classic SNES games, while Vernon sings about penury and inequality. Vernon writes about heartbreak and loneliness in a way that never loses sight of hope and never lapses into self-pity. For all its solo rumination, though, i,i is also Vernon’s most collaborative album. On opening track “iMi,” Vernon’s voice, comforting and familiar in its solitude, is joined by Mike Noyce and Velvet Negroni and Camilla Staveley-Taylor and James Blake. It is in a gathering of voices that the album finds hope; the chorus, harking back to Sylvia Plath, goes, “I am, I am, I am.” And he is.