Winner: Bon Iver - 'i,i'
Having already counted down our 25 Albums from 2019, an eclectic mix spanning surefire indie, vitriolic punk, shimmering Americana, sweeping alternative and potentially one of the most complex progressive metal records ever released, we've reached our Album of the Year. Ben Standring explains why Bon Iver's eternal 'i,i' deserves the crown.
To get a sense of Bon Iver’s genre-bending, fractured collage of records that have spanned the better part of a decade, it is vital to understand the fight or flight instinct embedded within the mind of the man in charge of it all. 2007’s debut record For Emma, Forever Ago saw a heartbroken and dejected Justin Vernon withdrawing to a log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. A self-titled sophomore record exploded into surrealist fantasy, a scintillating roadmap of his bipolar country projected behind new maximalist production values that Vernon picked up from Kanye West. The grandiose fantasy fractured exponentially on 22, A Million; a startling representation of the dire global situation that was fading into normality, which coincidentally acted as a perfect introduction to the post-Brexit and Trump dichotomy we still have today. The third record saw Vernon retreat so much he pulverised his own voice with machines to represent the fracturing of the self, but on his latest release, i,i the tide seems to be swiftly turning, the fragments healing slightly and the fire being taken to the fight.
What separates i,i from its predecessor is its collaborative and free spirit - guest spots from the likes of James Blake, Bruce Hornsby, Moses Sumney, Jen Wasner and Aaron and Bryce Dessner twirl amongst Vernon’s slightly auto-tuned vocals. Words tumble and turn at a moments notice as Vernon settles into the role of curator and conductor in place of his previous one-man-band approach. The earnest iMi aligns string plucks and percussive claps for a rhythmic and airy skeleton that allows hushed vocals to trickle sincerely over the track. The darkly minimalist We harks back to the disturbing echoes of Vernon’s work with Kanye West, whilst Holyfields finds profundity in the profane as its dusky, ceiling-scraping squarks and climbing synths paint an assured picture of the album slowly unfolding.
Whilst the record’s complexity matches the confusing social discourse of the present day, rare moments of natural bliss poke through the ruffled soundscape. Hey, Ma is brimming with unmediated and unarticulated emotion, its chorus’ unwavering melody reigniting faith in music’s capacity to project beauty above all else. Naeem is a beautifully devastating gospel-infused offering whilst Marion, a modern folk opus, harks back to the Vernon of yesteryear in its soothing arrangement.
i,i was hailed before release as the final piece of the Bon Iver jigsaw puzzle, a four-album cycle representing each of the four seasons. Winter and Spring were represented in the folk-dominated first two records, whilst 22, A Million’s heady disorientation represented the crazed unpredictability of summer. In autumnal fashion, the new album tapers down the distortion, maturing and culminating everything Vernon has crafted in the past. Album closer RABi offers a snapshot of Vernon’s twelve-year journey; jarring instrumental lines mesh together in a confused fashion that somehow makes sense, while a slinking saxophone arrangement bounces off the Americana-flecked guitar line.
The spatters of intimacy and sparsity breathe much-needed air into the record, but the real beauty of i,i is embedded within its complexity: the tiny blink-and-miss-it details noticeable only after repeated listens; the gnomic symbology of track names; and smirking abbreviations that take some scouting about to make sense of. Such is the complexity of the majestic new record, it feels almost a privilege to bathe in Vernon’s mind-palace of emotion and sentiment. On multiple occasions i,i feels both deeply personal and interconnected with the fabricated web of human existence - made to be enjoyed in cathartic tranquility and collective companionship alike.
For a project that first began as a work of hermetic isolation and dampened reflection, i,i is a startling turn of events, relying on collaboration and evoking the importance of community. On the brass-filled Salem, Vernon sings ‘What I think we need / Is elasticity, empowerment, and ease’: a proverbial mantra for making sense of the senseless. An unpredictable and elusive figure at the best of times, the completion of Vernon’s album cycle casts greater doubt over what the future has in store for Bon Iver. However, one piece of certainty is that, in this continually fragmented world, the importance of Bon Iver’s retrospective musings is greater than ever before.