Bon Iver i,i

[Jajaguwar; 2019]

Styles: religious studies
Others: Zammuto, Organ Tapes, James Blake, anti-Kanye West

It makes a lot of sense when you learn that both Noah Lennox and Justin Vernon have degrees in religious studies; Panda Bear’s seminal Person Pitch and Bon Iver’s last few albums are underlined with a kind of appreciation for religiosity that challenges limp “liberal” skepticism à la Bill Maher while also inspiring much more interesting reactions than “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Bon Iver’s 2016 release 22, A Million was a cryptic (literally), yet cogent model of how theology actually functions, what theology can really look like in action. For those understandably jaded by Religion (with a capital “R”) and those unwaveringly guided by faith, Vernon’s music constantly reminds us that theology’s central exigence is doubt, and that despite theology’s exploitation by American Conservativism, its core enterprise is one of communal quivering.

“Are you recording?”

As with previous Bon Iver records, loneliness amidst a vast wilderness immediately emerges as a prominent theme of i,i, pronounced “I comma I.” Somewhat ironically, however, though as if on purpose, openers “Yi” and “iMi” establish that this new chapter in the mythos of Bon Iver is one penned by many hands. We hear a snippet of a distorted phone conversation, reportedly recorded several years ago; hesitant and hazy guitar strums; a sharp, skipping voice slice through the fog; a cavalcade of trumpets, violins, synths, guitars, pianos — it’s a neat, but striking bookend to a decade that began with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a 21st-century tome brimming with features but ultimately riddled with self-doubt, self-deprecation, and self-obsession. Vernon’s work with Kanye is a pertinent point of reflection, as this record’s rollout into public consciousness has coincided with anticipation of Yandhi, and now Jesus Is King. In some regard, it feels as if, almost 10 years after Kanye tectonically shifted music’s landscape, it’s Vernon who’s reaching that Zenith as Kanye’s approaching his descent, enlightened yet incomprehensible.

Abstract comparison aside, i,i sounds like a New Testament. As Kanye looks backward on a career that launched with “Jesus Walks,” an assertion that ended up proving Kanye wrong (as evinced by a late-decade gospel trend), Vernon is clearing space here for a future we can all arrive at safely. What’s so remarkable about where Vernon has come since For Emma’s hermetic quietude is how actualized it feels within a greater narrative of climbing up out of desolation, of emerging out of these cracks in popular music. And it’s not that Kanye made Bon Iver famous or even that he created such conditions, rather that both West and Vernon have, throughout their respective careers, harnessed a kind of restlessness of being “Lost in the World” that has, in deeply strange ways, brought people together.

i,i is a record that wrestles with togetherness and our capacity for creating and maintaining it, and it does so in Communion with a disjointed chorus of other voices (James Blake, Bruce Hornsby, Brooklyn’s Youth Chorus, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Moses Sumney, and more). It plays like a collection of first-draft Psalms for a congregation at a Crossroads, or perhaps one persistently and violently driven toward the edge of the World as we know it. It sounds like live recordings from an alternate universe version of Kanye’s Sunday Services. Many song titles on i,i look like pronouns in some sort of post-apocalyptic English creole, one stripped of gender and formality yet re-stratified across boundaries of clusivity (who does “we” include?). Sonically, it embodies climatological anxiety in a deeply soulful way; it’s erratic like our weather patterns, as foreboding (“We”) as it is arrestingly beautiful (“RABi”). Lyrically, it’s as vague and confounding (“And the concrete’s very slow” - Naeem) as it is astonishingly (yet perhaps naively) clear-headed (“Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway” - RABi).

Vernon has called i,i Bon Iver’s “autumn” album, offering that each previous Bon Iver album has represented one of four seasons. It’s about as much context that’s given about i,i’s themes. In reality, it’s comprised largely of several years of demos and “field recordings” and collected samples and experiments and improvisations. Perhaps that’s why it feels so novel at the precipice of a new decade; after 10(+) years of failed political experiments and improvisations, here’s a new songbook stripped of the arrogance and pretense of capitalist evangelism. Or perhaps that’s all bullshit, as criticism often is, and what we’re beholding here is simply, as Vernon put it, a “fucking banger.” In any case, i,i has me excited for what’s next in music; because whatever inspiration drove its creation, it’s good to hear joy crack through despair like lightning, even if whatever’s up there’s as dead as fall.

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