With 2011’s Bon Iver and 2016’s 22, A Million, Justin Vernon contemporized the lo-fi and hook-y folk vibe of his debut album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, combining lilting melodies and swirly soundscapes with electronic flourishes and dramatic instrumentation. The 2011 and 2016 releases further highlighted Vernon’s ability to obliquely lyricize universal themes, such as love and loss, while employing sonics that (particularly with the 2016 project) hinted at a robotic or posthuman vision of life. While his songs remained grounded in discernible approaches, they also pointed to or outrightly effused a sense of detachment, disembodiment, or dissociation — striking a balance between pop accessibility and gestalts that rang as alien.
His new album i,i is a further exploration of previously honed techniques, most noticeably those used on 22, A Million. “iMi” employs an alternately stark and chaotic soundscape, melody alternately haunting and over-busy. “We” is founded on a pulsing rhythm and stark instrumentation, featuring a hummable melody and characteristically Dadaist lyric: “No folding gold for protecting from the lords / Who’s that really we leave out in the cold?” “Hey, Ma” is the most compelling track on the album, melody spacious and seductive. Lyrically Vernon blends imagism and assemblage, maundering word salads that would get a thumbs-up from William Burroughs or Doug Van Vliet: “Full time, you talk your money up / while it’s living in a coal mine.” The textured break showcases Vernon’s knack for constructing exotic yet evocative soundscapes.
It’s often occurred to me that Vernon and Radiohead have in common a mission to reconcile aesthetic and energetic contradictions, in this way facilitating paradoxical listening experiences. While Radiohead blends a welter of rhythms and roiling electronics (earthiness) with Thom Yorke’s gossamer/celestial voice (ethereality), Vernon works to reconcile the cogent simplicity of “the solo act” with layered soundscapes that occur as unworldly, dream-like, or surreal. Such is the case with “Jelmore,” the discordant and staccato instrumentation of which wouldn’t be out of place on one of Bjork’s more experimental tracks. “Faith” is a refreshing break from Vernon’s incidental nihilism, a patently buoyant tune, lyrics serving as cut-and-paste exemplars: “There is no design / you’ll have to decide / if you’ll come to know, I’m the faithful kind.” That said, the listener remains oddly removed, on the outside looking in. On one hand, this makes for a curious listening experience, more cerebral than visceral; on the other hand, I found myself wrestling with a sense of disconnection or audial voyeurism, as if I were being invited into a room that has no door through which to enter.
There’s a saying that my grandparents used to throw around: “too much of a good thing,” the gist of which is that a winning approach can be overused; what is initially galvanizing becomes predictable. Another: “one too many trips to the trough.” Again, i,i certainly contains many memorable moments. It’s worth emphasizing, too, that Vernon has, throughout his oeuvre, pursued a distinctly creative trajectory. He’s one of the more original and eloquent artists working today. That said, with his latest, he seems to frequently reach for a default method, flourish, or lyric, movements that often feel more automatic than inspired, much like a poet who reuses a metaphor or image with which he has facility and resonance, even if the reemployment doesn’t necessarily yield new insights or fresh expressions. i,i is, relatively speaking, a fine album. It may even end up being one of 2019’s notable sets. Still, it’s the least magical of Vernon’s tetralogy.