“And now, it might be Autumn.”
Those were the words included in a video teasing Bon Iver’s fourth album ‘i, i’. The clip revealed that each previous album has been related to a season: the stunning, award-winning debut ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was winter; the lush, self-titled second record spring; and the glitchy, experimental ‘22, A Million’ was summer.
And now, 12 years since it all began, Justin Vernon has reached the end of the cycle, with album number four ‘i, i’ taking the last seat at the table as autumn.
Over the course of the past three albums, Vernon has rapidly expanded his sonic palette. The gorgeous, stripped-back folk of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ developed and swelled into the self-titled album’s soaring baroque pop, and then twisted and evolved into whirring electronics of ‘22, A Million’. Each reinvention held Vernon’s distinctive, reassuring vocals at the heart of them, but the instrumentation varied drastically. This time around, though, instead of turning everything on its head one last time, he’s chosen to combine the sounds of the past three releases. Bon Iver has pieced together this fourth album in an impossibly intelligent way.
The crunchy bleeps and bloops that permeated ‘22, A Million’ are present and correct, but they aren’t as obvious and overpowering as they were last time. While ‘Jelmore’ would have fit comfortably on ’22, A Million’, on other cuts such as ‘Faith’ the electronics are complemented by stunning soundscapes that mirror older songs like ‘Holocene’ and ‘Calgary’. Meanwhile the warming folk riffs of ‘Marion’ are reminiscent of ‘For Emma’ or ‘Re:Stacks’, from the first album, yet the sumptuous brass lines finishes are evocative of the brass used throughout ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’.
But it’s not just the previous albums that get a look in. The jangling piano and sky-high melodies of ‘U (Man Like)’ hark back to 2009’s ‘Blood Bank EP’ (in particular ‘Babys’), while a collaboration with James Blake, ‘iMi’, bears similarities to their previous team-up ‘I Need A Forest Fire’.
All three previous albums come to heads on album closer ‘RABi’, with a slinky saxophone here and Americana-flecked guitar there. It’s the perfect summation of ‘i, i’ in its entirety, with contradictory instrumental lines gorgeously meshing together, turning the older sounds into something fresh and new. But it also feels bittersweet. With ‘i, i’ marking the end of the album cycle, the possibility of any future Bon Iver music is uncertain.
Yet Vernon leaves those worried about the future with a note of comfort. As ‘i, i’ draws to a close, Vernon, accompanied by tight choral vocals and opulent brass, sings, “Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine all any way”, to which he later responds with a whispered, echo-y, “But If you wait it wont be undone…”.
Over 12 years the music Justin Vernon has created as Bon Iver has constantly changed, but that doesn’t mean the old sounds have been undone; they’ve been repurposed and reused, evolving into something different – but always as compelling as the Bon Iver of yesteryear.