What began as Justin Vernon’s project of catharsis in a cabin in Wisconsin has evolved nearly beyond recognition. What was once a sparse, folk endeavor has essentially become a massive, genre-fluid music collective. Over the course of three albums, Bon Iver has set a precedent of changing their sound each time. On their fourth album, i,i, instead of taking another sonic leap, Vernon’s band uses all the pieces they already have, tinkering until everything is just right. The result is a magnificent master key to Vernon’s output thus far.

How Bon Iver lovers and skeptics alike will respond to i,i’s polished perfectionism will rely on how much time they are willing to devote to exploring its fullness, because the album is not as immediately as fascinating as the band’s previous work. It doesn’t hit with the same surprising tenderness of For Emma, the awe-inspiring beauty of Bon Iver or the exciting hyperactivity of 22, A Million. On the first few listens, i,i almost washes over you—it’s a sensation of familiarity and warmth, but not one that is all that unexpected, making it easy to slip by if you don’t stop and dwell in it. The impressive run of three tracks at the center of the album makes the strongest impression; however, the other songs seem to float by without the same initial, undeniable melodies and climaxes. It’s in sitting with i,i that the album truly blossoms and reveals itself as Bon Iver’s most idealized work.

The tracks on i,i present pieces and lessons from all of Vernon’s previous projects, collaborations and iterations. Some of the tracks express a little more DNA from some releases than from others but still end up feeling like a product of the total. “Marion” and “RABi” are the closest we’ve heard Bon Iver come to For Emma’s stripped-down aesthetic since maybe the Blood Bank era. “iMi”, “Jelmore”, “Holyfields,” and “Sh’Diah” express the same jittery modernity present on 22, A Million, but with more restraint and space to breathe along with some much-welcomed additional saxophone. The focus on subtlety and expanse make each of these tracks successful and a step forward from their musical gene pool.

The aforementioned middle section of the album is infused with the same cinematics and drama found in the group’s self-titled release as well as in Repave, the second album from Volcano Choir, Justin Vernon’s side project with members of Collections of Colonies of Bees. “Hey Ma,” with its grounding saxophone and synth core, grows slowly, adding bass and drums a third of the way into the song and breaks down to allow for a gorgeous, atmospheric bridge that leads into one final peak. “U (Man Like)” emphasizes the piano and huge, angelic chorus vocals and the perfect mixture of organic instrumentation and electronic interjections on “Naeem” becomes one of the more spectacular apexes Bon Iver has ever recorded. “Faith,” coming just two tracks later, nearly equals this peak while also featuring some jaw-dropping moments highlighting strings, buzzing electronics and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
It would be a shame for any listeners or critics to discount this album for its lack of a musical paradigm shift or because individual tracks may stand out less on their own than on previous albums. In fact, this is the most complete, realized piece in the Bon Iver canon. There is so much to explore here and it is so rare and lovely when an artist shows that “feeling is first” but places just as much emphasis and care into the “syntax of things.” It took over a decade of gathering experience, knowledge and a village’s worth of collaborators, but this feels like what Bon Iver was always meant to sound like—i,i is the first time that listeners can fully take in Vernon’s musical forest from the trees, and it is quite the sight to behold.

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