You might know the story of Justin Vernon’s first album as Bon Iver; it’s been repeated so often that it reads like hyperbole. A man, disillusioned with life, retreats to a cabin in the dead of winter and writes songs about a lost love. That was in 2006, and the resulting record, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, has been credited with giving new life to contemporary folk music. Twelve years later, Bon Iver is a full-fledged band with a growing list of collaborators and two Grammy Awards to its name. Vernon himself has become a star, lending his voice to collaborations with the rappers Kanye West and Travis Scott and the experimental singer-producer James Blake, among others. Yet, as he’s ascended, there’s a sense that he would rather be off somewhere alone—plucking a guitar, smoking some weed, and turning the dials on a sound machine. His music as Bon Iver has always been tied to some form of escape.
For i,i, his fourth studio album leading Bon Iver, Vernon retreated once again—this time to Tornillo, Texas, the site of the largest residential recording studio in the world. But unlike the For Emma days, he isn’t just some dude with a few instruments and a laptop: What began as a solo folk act has swelled into a collaborative mix of rock, avant-pop, gospel, and hip-hop. And he’s not sad or agitated anymore. On i,i, the melancholy that defined For Emma and the 2011 breakthrough Bon Iver is all but gone. For the first time, it seems, Vernon sounds content, untethered to old sorrow.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Bon Iver record if Vernon didn’t look to the past or at a map. There’s a deep sense of longing to his work; his memories, no matter how pronounced or fleeting, are the essence of his overall approach to songwriting. On Emma, a failed romance was the focus, while on Bon Iver, geography was the anchor: “Holocene,” the band’s most popular song, was based on a bad night in an Oregon bar of the same name, while “Perth” was spawned by the death of actor Heath Ledger (who was born in Perth, Australia) and Vernon’s perceived isolation during his time in the city. The band’s third album, 2016’s 22, a Million, was also inspired in part by location. Vernon, in another attempt to find himself, decamped to a remote island off the coast of Greece and had an awful experience. “Don’t go to the Greek Islands off season by yourself,” he once said. “Trying to find myself and I did not. And I just heard this chorus in my head, ‘This feeling might be over soon.’” The line opened the album in modified form (“It might be over soon”) and became what might be one of his most unforgettable lyrics. Vernon’s narrative strength isn’t based in long tales like those of, say, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan; it’s in his ability to make you see his world through one-off missives that, sung in his haunting falsetto, feel like alien transmissions from some faraway land. On i,i, Vernon further unpacks his history, but this time it’s with a smile and not a furrowed brow.
Vernon has called i,i his most “adult” record. He says it’s more mature because of the particular period in his existence that it catalogs: “It feels like when you get through all this life, when the sun starts to set, and what happens is you start gaining perspective.” In that way, i,i is exceedingly pleasant, reflecting the views of a man finally at peace with himself and his surroundings. Vernon’s still looking back, to be sure, but the dejection that once pressed upon his mind has dissipated. The bad ol’ days can weigh you down if you hold on to them, so on “iMi,” when Vernon admits that “living in a lonesome way had me looking other ways,” he’s trying to shed his excess baggage and be more affable. Indeed, i,i is a communal record, one in which he allows his bandmates to test their own ideas. In years past, Vernon was Bon Iver; this time he’s stepping back to become more collaborative. In an interview, he admits that therapy has helped change his creative process. It’s evident on “Holyfields,” on which he declares, “Danger been steppin’ in, / I’m happy as I’ve ever been.”
As with any Bon Iver record, the lyrics are open-ended and somewhat cryptic, and it takes a patient ear to fully decipher what Vernon is singing about. So on the surface, “Hey, Ma” could be about his mother or his own childhood memories (“I wanted a bath,” Vernon exclaims), but he also recalls “tokin’ on dope” and reminds you to “call your ma.” Then there are songs like “Jelmore” and “Marion,” in which he could be talking about US politics and climate change: “We’ll all be gone by the fall,” he sings on “Jelmore,” while on “Marion” he refers to “the rising sea.” Serenity is the theme of i,i, but on these tracks, the picture is a bit foggy. Yet these examples speak to the power of Vernon as a visionary and Bon Iver as a band. The lack of lyrical clarity isn’t a deal breaker; the way the songs sound overall is more important. That’s most evident on “Naeem,” i,i’s gospel-infused centerpiece. Just like “Hey, Ma,” Vernon seems to draw from his childhood memories; with its pronounced marching drums, it feels like something he and Kanye could have recorded for the rapper’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Musically, i,i is a much smoother listen than 22, a Million. That record, with its dense vocal layers, frenetic computer glitches, and hieroglyphic song titles, swayed too hard from the lush folk of Bon Iver, which earned the band a pair of Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best New Artist. Vernon has never crafted music for recognition, but given his thoughts about the Grammy process (he’s called it “ridiculous”), I can’t help but see 22, a Million as his anti-Grammy record. Bon Iver was loved by voters and the public at large, counting among its fans the comedian Rosie O’Donnell, who often listened to the album while making dinner. It seems that in reaction to all that adulation and attention, Vernon decided to make a record that ran away from what people loved about his music. Instead, 22, a Million was the sound of catharsis, of Vernon wrestling with anxiety very loudly in search of something true. Here, he dials back the glitch and recenters the folk-rock hybrid that won Bon Iver its fame. i,i brings the band full circle, leading to its most balanced record in eight years and Vernon’s most honest work yet.