Monday, August 12, 2019

album review: 'i, i' by bon iver

Alright, let's try this again.

So, Bon Iver, the primary venture for singer-songwriter-producer Justin Vernon and a rotating cast of players, and one of the critical darling acts that has never quite won me over. Don't get me wrong, for the most part I like this project, especially the more propulsive, windswept indie folk side that was instrumental in partially jumpstarting that movement in the late 2000s, but the more Bon Iver has ventured towards synthesized electronic music, the more I've been torn on them, respectful of the ambition but rarely satisfied with the results. I do think it's unfortunate that the first time I was talking about Bon Iver I was covering the project's worst album thus far by a considerable margin - that being 2016's 22, A Million, a project that wrapped itself in a lyrical tangle trying to parse the larger divisive world before scolding the audience for trying to understand it, along with some of the most scattershot, fragmented production yet - because I think it may have given off a more negative impression... but that doesn't mean I'm going to mince words here either. Hell, I was probably too nice to 22, A Million in retrospect.

And yet seemingly out of nowhere we had a new Bon Iver project, released three weeks early online and with Justin Vernon describing it as his most 'honest' and 'adult' album to date. What caught my attention was not only more producers allowed in the room, but also collaborators like James Blake and Aaron Dessner and even Bruce Hornsby - the latter shouldn't be that much of a surprise, given that he has worked with Vernon in the past, but still! And you know what, I really was hoping this would turn into something special, so what did Bon Iver deliver this time?

Okay, let me start with the good news here: at least to me, this is a notable improvement over 22, A Million - still don't quite think it's as good as Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but it's leaning into the huge swings for shimmering power that gave 22, A Million its best moments and marrying them to the more organically inclined grooves that worked. And while this album is still fractured and not as groundbreaking as some will make it out to be, the tempering of the experimentation with better structure and more tolerable writing are both promising steps... although I've still got some niggling issues with Bon Iver that prevent me from really embracing this as deeply as I'd like.

In fact, let's start with some of those, and let's focus on Justin Vernon himself. I kind of danced around this when I reviewed 22, A Million because the vocal overproduction was the much larger issue, but Vernon's creaking, electronically-augmented croon can definitely wear on my patience, especially when it's overlayered and mixed to the front of the mix where the blaring falsetto textures just do not click at all, especially on cuts like 'Salem' and especially 'Sh'Diah' which otherwise have a lot of potential, in the former case with the plinking but stable groove and the latter with those horns, and that's not counting the blurry pileup of messy, stuttered blending that is 'iMi' or 'Jelmore'. But the problems in those cases is more linked to the lingering structural issues you can highlight from 22, A Million - sample of varying fidelities are haphazardly mashed together against underweight clicking drum machines, smatterings of horns and pianos, and a shuddering structure that Arca did better five years ago. But circling back to Vernon, what's exasperating is that when you push away the autotune and get him away from that falsetto, his singing in his multi-tracked midrange is probably some of his best, certainly his more dynamic and immediate, especially when the song has any semblance of structure - the absolute best example is 'Hey, Ma' off the more defined organic leads in bass, guitar and some live drums, but the gradual crescendo of 'Naeem' with the heavier drums, the minor key bridge pivot on 'Holyfields,' and even some of the jangling piano and harmonica interplay on 'U (Man Like)' with Bruce Hornsby. But that's also been a lingering frustration with Bon Iver for some time now, because Vernon is a good enough composer to refine an organic groove and hit some genuinely pretty moments, maybe even convince an audience that some of these are not as improvised or assembled piecemeal as they are... but then you get the tacked-on, overproduced electronics like the squawking tinny blasts through 'Faith' or how the groove never stabilizes on 'We' or how despite 'RABi' working as a warm, ramshackle guitar send-off it feels like the wrong sort of ending, and you realize just how fragmented and undercooked these compositions can feel. It's slapdash, and just overarranged enough to try and disguise it, but when placed in contrast with songs with an actual climax that can make that beauty shine effectively, it reflects a lack of deeper thought and refinement.

And on that note, the lyrics. Now I'll repeat the same stipulation that I said when I reviewed Bon Iver last time: that Justin Vernon writes lyrics more based upon feel and flow rather than making direct sense, so more often than not you're dealing with an impressionistic interpretation rather than something direct. But that being said, if there's a project where Vernon is writing some of the most direct and political pieces of his entire career, it's on this album, and I'm a little shocked how little discourse seems to have covered it. Now Justin Vernon has been framing this as the conclusion of a seasonal cycle starting with his first album with this being the 'autumn album', but the larger thematic element here is the passage of time, and the contrast being presented between those who necessarily must evolve and change and those who would look to and settle in the past - you know, 'Make America Great Again' or some nonsense like that. And don't think I'm kidding about the political references, because as early as 'We' Vernon is targeting the small-minded bullies who have never grown up and can't see the larger picture, who'll defend tariffs and being sold a bill of goods even despite getting cast aside, and it continues onto 'Holyfields,' and 'Jelmore', both songs that highlight the impacts of climate change and the continued blindness by people to acknowledge the very real calamity at hand. Hell, 'U (Man Llike)' might be the most blunt shot on the album, highlighting the systemic rot of an opioid-addled Midwest - from whence Vernon comes - the 'phallic repetition' of the liar-in-chief, and his utter failure to take any responsibility despite that being in the values he professes. And then we get 'Hey Ma', where there are glimpses at a petulant past and a lingering trail of projection, where Vernon was just as stuck in that past but finds the truth in the night's passage to a new dawn, with enough hope implied that the person has been back and forth from the light. Powerful metaphors, evocative writing, and even signs of growth as he throws his faith in the tangible on 'Faith' while questioning the hypocrisy of those who refuse their time for others on 'Sh'Diah'...

And then like on the last album, Vernon seems to steer into a skid with a lingering petulance and retreat that all the self-awareness in the world can't redeem. And I'm not the only one who has noticed this: other critics have identified how much he wants to shrink from a leadership role or spotlight and have hammered this album as a result... which I'm not sure is fair, but I do get it. Now part of this ties into how Vernon always has lyrics that yank back from any real responsibility himself - an irony that is tellingly ignored - and just can read as insufferable even in context: 'if forgiveness is a chore, what are you waiting for' on 'iMi', how he's not received 'reciprocity' on 'Salem' - really just the majority of that song, to be honest. But it's more an acknowledgement on cuts like 'Naeem' that time is leaving him and his partner behind as much as anyone, and perhaps the leadership role is passing him by in favour of the kids who will be hell-bent on chasing change and fixing things. And on some level, I get this - but if you yourself acknowledge that the peace and stability your privilege gives you is anodyne and sterile, and yet that is the moment you choose to settle into on 'RABi', along with pushing the same sort of sanitized 'peace & love & come together' message that has its heart in the right place but seems divorced from real urgency or reality, it feels like a copout, and a similar self-focused abdication of responsibility. It gives me the feeling of how Gen X has really sat out the generational divide between the boomers and millennials, unwilling to realize that through even well-meaning detachment they're just as much of an bulwark against real and needed change - might be a reason why on Bon Iver's most conscious and directly political project there's no serious call to action, the album ends on a sedate guitar ballad that Vernon describes as a lightweight 'see you later' song allowing time's passage, or even how it's titled i, i - an album that wants to target ego but will never dismantle its own.

And I'll be honest, while I do think this is an improvement there's a lot that holds me back from really liking it. Yes, the organic compositions connect a little better and there is some great layered poetry here, but at the end of the day between my persistent issues with this project and how it can't quite stick the landing in production and themes... I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation most for the fans, but even then I'm still not sold. I've long considered Bon Iver as one of the most overhyped indie acts where the experimentation, writing, and delivery was never as potent as it might seem, and I get the feeling that with time's continued passage, we'll only see more of that come to pass. If you're curious, it's a fascinating listen... but I'm not ready to fade into that autumn sunset just yet.

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