Updated: Jul 6, 2020
I had heard nothing about this album or about Bon Iver for a long time and then all of a sudden, as I'm scrolling through Apple Music looking for new music to geek out over, (as I usually am) under "UPCOMING RELEASES", there it was. Everything about this album screamed at me that it needed to be listened to. With a title, album cover and marketing so intriguing, this album demanded to be heard as soon as I stumbled upon it. Justin Vernon has always been a personal hero of mine. The way he has been able to write, produce, play, sing, perform at an incredibly high level all while being so innovative and different has mystified me ever since FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO. I,I follows that same pattern of innovation and uniqueness that we know and love from Vernon...
Following the theme of Autumn to cap off a modern-day-Vivaldi (FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO - Winter / BON IVER - Spring / 22, A MILLION - Summer), we open with a phone recording of a distorted, muffled conversation between Justin and his friend Trevor, chopped up, experimented and twisted until it becomes "the spirit that flows into the next song" as Vernon describes on Apple Music's liner notes. He does not disappoint with the next song as he keeps this spirit alive but is able to bring it to life in the form of a full song, "iMi". In this extremely captivating opening, he opens with lyrics as evocative as they come:
"Living in a lonesome way
Had me looking other ways
(Cause I am I am I am lost here, again)
But on a bright fall morning, I'm with it
I stood a little while within it"
If that does not make any listener want more, nothing else will. The song reaches a climax with a an amazing New Orleans-style horn cadenza cacophony resolving on a D-flat Major 9 chord, seeming to symbolize Justin's willingness to again toss his own rule book out the window and start completely fresh. The song is abruptly ended with a small IV-I cadence, which is precisely the thing that makes Bon Iver so genius. Upon first listen, you're not completely sure where Justin is taking you or even what exactly he's saying. All you know is that you want to hear more. It's moments like the resolution of the horn cadenza that give you the washing sensation of being in the presence of greatness. You never quite know what to expect next from each song, and Justin is amazing at throwing all of the listener's expectations overboard and doing not what he thinks should be done, but doing what needs to be done. This truly is the mark of a great artist.
After the overwhelming feeling that comes with the horn cadenza, we're taken along a journey through songs cryptic, non-cryptic, simple, complex, hard hitting baritone guitar, classic ruggedness of the acoustic guitar that makes Bon Iver so recognizable, incredibly structured and beautifully written pop songs, improvised electronic movements and everything in between. It's truly remarkable to gaze upon what Justin and his producers, (who deserve Grammys for their incredible work) Chris Messina and Brad Cook have accomplished here. They've somehow managed to produce something unlike anything released in 2019, but have included the knowledge of pop, alternative, rock, jazz, dance, experimental, ambient, singer/songwriter and more genres to help them tell stories of passion, love, heartbreak, religion, politics, living in Trump's America and more.
When I first heard the song "Holyfields", I was so blindsided. The staccato nature of the synth, the simplistic playfulness of the melody at the start, the relationship between the major key signature and tonic minor, and the way the song resolves with a soaring, beautiful, never-ending melody are all nothing short of wonderful. I go to Apple Music upon the release date and as I'm reading the liner notes, I come across this line under the description for "Holyfields".'
"The whole song is an improvised movement with barely any editing, and we just improv'd moves... We didn't really chop away at that one-it kind of just was born with all its hair and everything."
You're telling me that whole song was improvised? This is something rarely done in any genre of music, let alone something as popular as this. This song was already an exercise of the highest form of artistic expression, and to know that it's improvised, makes it unprecedented. He follows "Holyfields" up with what might be my favourite song of the year "Hey, Ma". It is incredibly well written, amazingly produced, and performed with such execution. All the while, it includes the unique production choices that we know Vernon, Messina, and Cook can do better than anyone else in the world.
As listeners, we are lucky enough to be taken on Vernon's journey through Autumn, and we are treated to some amazing moments...
• The amazingly written piano line (done by Bruce Hornsby) on the jazz feel of "U (Man Like)"
• The beauty of Justin's impeccable guitar ability on "Marion"
• The inner moving cello-like synth lines on "Faith"
• The syncopation and uneasiness of "Jelmore"
• The shades of FOR EMMA, FOREVER AGO that close out the album on "RABi"
Justin Vernon continues time and again ("Faith" reference) to break through the mold of pop & alternative music. He's done it four times, and each time, it's been completely different than the last. He is an outlier in music as he is totally free of the constraints that the music industry can put on all of its artists. I,I takes every rule that the industry has tried to inflict upon its artists and throws them out the window. This album is like a painting that you can look at multiple times and see completely different things than you did before. Timeless. Courageous. Introspective, yet outward. Bold. Creative. Visionary. Brave. Innovative. I believe that Justin said it best in the liner notes ...
"There's a lot to be sad about, there's a lot to be thankful for. Leaning on gratitude and appreciation of the people around you that make you who you are, make you feel safe and provide that shelter so you can be who you want to be, there's still that impetus in life. We need that."
There is no doubt that this album is just what the world needs, and what all humans need to be exposed to. In 30 years time, I,I will become one of the most important alternative albums in history.
So can you guess my pick for Best Alternative Album at the 2020 Grammy's?
HIGHLIGHTS: "iMi", "Holyfields,", "Hey, Ma", "U (Man Like)", "Faith", "Marion"
GRADE: 93 (A+)