i,i by Bon Iver


It’s astonishing that this album was released nearly two years ago, on August 9th 2019. When I got it, I played the first track, didn’t like it and put it back on the shelf, thinking that I would come back to it later. It was only the imminent release of Big Red Machine’s second album (featuring many of the same musicians) that has piqued my interest and I’ve played it properly for the first time this morning.

How often am I too quick to make my mind up about something? At first, it was tomatoes. My Mum gave me some tomatoes when I was small, I didn’t like them and I didn’t eat another one until I was a 16 year old playing for Tunbridge Wells YMCA cricket team. I took a bite into a cheese sandwich at tea and suddenly realised that I’d inadvertently eaten a tomato – or at least a sliver of one. The social pressure was too much – there was no way I was going to replicate my behaviour at the dinner table at home, complain that I was being poisoned and spit the food back onto the plate. I grimaced, chewed quickly, swallowed and was amazed to find that I hadn’t died. In fact, I probably quite liked the taste.

“i,i” is not an easy listen. Justin Vernon’s voice is heavily treated throughout and, although I liked Bon Iver’s previous album, “22, A Million”, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of this album. I think it’s change that I find difficult. Trying something new instantly causes all my prejudices to resurface very quickly. After tomatoes, it was checked shirts. For over 60 years, I refused to wear a shirt with a checked pattern on it, claiming that I felt that I was wearing pyjamas and I would look foolish if I went outdoors looking as if I’d forgotten to get dressed in the morning. One day, whilst enduring the terrible ordeal known as clothes shopping, I just thought “fuck it” and bought a shirt with a small checked pattern on it. As with “i,i”, I took it home, looked at it, didn’t like it and put it away until, one day, with no other clean shirts available, I was forced to wear it. I tentatively went outside for a walk and plucked up the courage to endure the ridicule that would ensue when I passed other people on the pavement. An older couple walked towards me – I could tell that they were laughing at me and I was ready to endure their scorn as they passed only to be greeted with a breezy and cheery “Good Morning.” I had succeeded. I had worn a checked shirt without people laughing at me. Life was good, after all.

This morning, after spending a week writing the 7000 words on “Separate Paths Together“, I felt a sense of anticlimax and wanted to dash out a quick post. I took a bite of tomato, I put on a checked shirt and I retrieved “i,i” from the depths of the shelves. It’s playing now. It’s brilliant.

The first track is “Yi” which was made by tuning a radio on and off while sliding cardboard over it. This results in a 30 second piece which is as tuneless as it sounds and is not the recommended way of drawing new listeners into an album. Musicians with the purity of Justin Vernon don’t seem to consider that to be important and his musical and artistic single mindedness only inspires awe and admiration from me. The riff (or “chop”) that is made by this experimentation forms the basis of the next track, “iMi” on which four different vocalists (including James Blake) deliver snippets of singing, alongside Justin Vernon’s heavily treated voice. (James Blake is the son of James Litherland, who provided excellent vocals for Colosseum’s “Valentyne Suite“.) Altogether nearly 20 people play on this song. It’s impossible to decipher the lyrics but the CD comes with a 28 page booklet containing wacky far-out photos and the words to the songs. “iMi” seems to be about a person who regrets the way they have been with their partner and has decided to give as well as take. The moment where he sings about a brite (sic) fall morning being an emotional breakthrough is truly moving. A fairly traditional basis for a song but presented in an other-worldly and completely original musical setting. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Justin Vernon describes it as” a little town of people trying to be good”.

On “Hey Ma”, Justin Vernon’s voice is barely treated at all and he delivers the song in a mixture of his deep baritone and high falsetto (tautology, anyone?). The song seems to concern someone in confusion who decides it’s a good time to call his mother. It reminds me of “Ten Degrees And Getting Colder” as sung by Nanci Griffith. However, that’s a straightforward country song borne from a place of desperation and this is a seriously weird piece of music in which the singer appears to have all he needs but whatever your state of mind, it’s always a good time to call your mother. Unless she’s dead, I suppose. As with every song on this album, beauty emerges from the chaos and confusion of the soundscape, due, mainly I suspect, from Justin Vernon’s enhanced ability to connect with his own spirituality. Or, as Neil Young once said about himself, it’s like he has a direct line to God.

Hey, Ma. I do like tomatoes and this checked shirt feels great.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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