Sad white guy hymns
by Jericho Cerrona
Remember when Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) locked himself inside a Wisconsin cabin and wrote sad acoustic songs while nursing a breakup and living on hunted venison? That dark time produced For Emma, Forever Ago; a stripped back collection of rustic ballads structured around a haunting croon, but this was 12 years ago, and a lot has transpired in the career of the once lonely troubadour. Truthfully, For Emma had its beautiful moments, benefiting from Vernon’s naiveté, but it also tapped into the prototypical white male overcoming hard times narrative.
Since then, Vernon has veered more into art-pop territory, collaborating with the likes of Kayne West and James Blake and blowing out his sound in the process. 2011’s self-titled album and 2016’s 22, A Million showcased him at his most maximalist; throwing in auto-tune, sound collage, and electronic overdubs to mostly diminishing effect. However, the spiral into sermonizing nonsense continues with his latest opus, i,i. Is it possible for a record this well produced to come across so unimaginative? Honestly, there are stretches here where Vernon’s gifts at experimentation impress, and there’s no doubt everything is mixed to the point of meticulousness. However, i,i, simply lacks compelling songs. Other than standout track “Hey, Ma”, the album is mostly a series of Vernon cooing and mumbling tired mantras over washed out instrumentals.
Whereas 22, A Million was undone by trying to marry the singer-songwriter’s earnestness with glitchy production, i,i, attempts to scale down into more gospel-tinged prettiness, but underneath the sheen is a sense of the emperor having no clothes. There’s little reason to assume based on Bon Iver’s past work that he’s simply having a laugh, but it’s difficult not to cringe at lines like I’m having a bad, bad toke on “Naeem”, followed by the repeated refrain of I can hear, I can hear, I can hear crying. It’s the type of hippy poetry that may pass for deep meaning among the burning man crowd, but in this context, it’s absolutely laughable. The wandering saxophone and skittering electronics on “Jelmore” are initially intriguing, but Vernon’s garbled vocals and the lack of a coherent structure quickly wears out its welcome. Meanwhile, “Faith” is a syrupy ballad which fakes uplift with soaring violin synths, plucked guitar chords, and annoying vocal harmonies.
Truthfully, Bon Iver isn’t just a one-man show, as a full band and host of collaborators are on hand here; i.e. Mike Noyce, Velvet Negroni, Camilla Staveley-Taylor, Jenn Wasner, Bruce Hornsby, Young Thug producer Wheezy and James Blake, among others. However, there is a single-minded vision, one where Vernon is casting his lyrical net around things like climate change, tariffs, and gas masks. While some may appreciate the inscrutable nature of the vocal turns here, most of it consists of sad white guy hymns. There’s something obnoxious about Vernon’s use of gospel-tinged orchestration (not to mention his R & B-cribbed singing on songs like “U (Man Like)”, resulting in a kind of appropriated wokeness that never really seems to be protesting anything specific.
The main issue with i,i, isn’t necessarily auditory, though. The album has a meandering quality that many will hail as multi-layered and rewarding of multiple spins, but strikes this reviewer as indistinct and directionless. Of course, art-pop songs don’t need to follow verse-chorus-verses structures or memorable hooks to dig into one’s subconscious (just check out Thom Yorke’s excellent new solo effort, ANIMA), but they do need a sense of tension in order to linger. The anguish and despair exemplified lyrically on many tracks here simply don’t feel organic. Instead, it sounds more like a successful Grammy-winning musician grabbling with how to move forward creatively once the dream is achieved, and that’s rarely a compelling hook for a sonic narrative.