What is soul? I don’t know, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you’re feeling your lyrics as hard as Justin Vernon does on Bon Iver’s new album i,i, and you want other people to feel them, it’s best you communicate what’s meant to be felt. Alas, Vernon’s lyrics are just a little too cryptic to get across what’s in his head, nor evocative enough for us to get the gist of what he’s abstracting. When Prince screams, “could we just hang out, could we go to a movie”, it’s earned because he’s throwing his body at the wall between himself and unattainable love. When Young Thug screams “Patrick Ewing”, it’s because he’s drunk off his own eccentricity. When Brian Wilson sends “Surf’s Up” to a heartrending climax on the words “a children’s song”, it works because the lyrics are rich enough in their psychedelic detail that we feel them even when we understand they’re essentially nonsense. But when Vernon screams, “Tell them I’ll be passing on / Tell them we’re young mastodons,” there’s a disconnect between this crypsis and the firmness with which he sings it. Throughout i,i he treats absurd lyrics with so much oomph his earnestness becomes inadvertently comical.
That’s what separates i,i from the rest of Bon Iver’s often brilliant discography, from which the record otherwise springs naturally. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, from 2011, existed in an impression of America made from fake place names and woodsy rusticism. Its lyrics could be dazzlingly imagistic. A line like “over havens fora full and swollen morass, young habitat” effortlessly suggests a swampy and untamed wilderness without having to make any sense. 22, A Million from 2016 was a puckish puzzle, retreating into tangles of mysticism, daring us to make sense of it in a way that was thrilling and hallucinogenic.
i,i hangs between surrealism and meaning in a way that’s more frustrating than tantalizing. When Vernon sings, “I heard you guys were very safe / Caught up with the featherweights”, it’s hard to shake the feeling “safe” and “featherweights” aren’t just poetic substitutions for other words. At least Vernon writes candidly about love. Sometimes in indie rock, it’s disappointing to learn the poetry you’ve been hearing is just code for relationship problems. So lines like “I like you, and that ain’t nothing new” or “fold your hands into mine” are refreshing.
These problems are most acute on the album’s first half, filled with songs that really try to be anthems. Songs like “iMi” and “Naeem” hurtle towards grand emotional peaks, augmented by vocal samples and bass swells that at times make the music sound like it’s under attack by an alien virus. The intro “Yi” comments slyly on this, with Vernon and crew trying to restrain what sounds like a rampaging beast in the studio.
There’s a strong hip-hop influence here, not least because Young Thug whisperer Wheezy is a credited producer. Vernon’s delivery on “We” and “RABi” stems directly from Southern rap, triple-time cadences and all. It’s one of the more effective adoptions of hip-hop by a rock act in part because Vernon doesn’t want the music for its defiant posturing or black cool but because of its maximalist possibilities. This bass-boosted approach sacrifices much of the atmosphere Vernon’s cultivated on his past releases—atmosphere that might’ve been augmented in the past by Vernon’s esotericism, while here it’s a liability.
The second half of i,i, from “Jelmore” on, is vastly superior. The arrangements cool down, and the electronics yield to acoustic guitars. We’re allowed to stop and look around a bit instead of hurtling along with Vernon to the next climax. “Jelmore” takes delight in its oddness the way the best Bon Iver tracks do. Its curious title derives from “angel morning sivanna” with its lyrics presenting a cast of misfits with mismatched body parts. “Faith” is the best song here, in part because Abrahamic imagery has always been ripe for abstraction but mostly because it takes something recognizable—a spiritual journey—and filters it brilliantly through his idiosyncratic language. The carefully plodding arrangement suggests a pilgrim’s slow, thoughtful forward momentum. When Vernon sings, “It’s not going the road I’d known as a child of God”, we’re treated to a rare moment when the cloud of Vernon’s obfuscations parts and both artist and listener can share a moment of understanding.
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