The great American album
American backroads will stretch for miles if you let them. An endless web weaved of dirt and the occasional discarded beer bottle. More people grow up on these roads than you’d think. As much as the world tends to view America as either a world power or an ironic spaghetti western, it remains thoroughly untamed, the people there doubly so. Each of these roads carries the weight of the American psyche, an endless meandering of wilderness and urban life, a scatterbrained hodge-podge, multifaceted, fractured and nonsensical – but beautiful all the same. Justin Vernon (better known as Bon Iver) is no stranger to these roads, his albums are the constant companions of many a melancholy excursion. But i,i is a unique achievement, a short burst of barely controlled madness. As difficult as it may be to broach at first glance it is a Ulysses of the modern era, a perfect map of the dirt-covered backroad.
No one should be surprised at the general oddity of this album. Bon Iver’s previous work [22, A Million] was a profoundly strange record with even stranger titles. When compared directly to its predecessor, i,i is a fairly approachable record with a brisk runtime and rather nonsensical titles. In general, this work shares more in common with 22, A Million than it does with Bon Iver and For Emma, Forever Ago both in terms of production and content. This is a small dose of something sprawling, unhinged, but strangely calculated.
Each track possesses almost manic energy at points, but where it shines brightest is in between the madness. The valleys and cool energy of tracks like “iMi” and “Jelmore” serve as a beautiful compliment to the shimmering peaks that the saxophones, synths and shouting lend to each track. That there is such incredible variance not only from track to track but within each track is almost unbelievable as a number of the songs barely clear the three-minute mark. What we are left with is an impeccably complete album that is endlessly re-listenable.
Of course, some will take umbrage with the lyrics and song titles, but chances are that those who are in that camp will have dropped off after 22, A Million which was the most noticeable foray into lyrics as a mood rather than lyrics as narrative. Though there are some that at least attempt to have a narrative, like “Hey Ma” and “Naeem.” This is where the album separates itself from the field and turns into a full-blown avant-garde film. You can see the dirt roads, you can see the rising sun and the blowing grains carved into the grooves of the record. It is a journey to be undertaken, not something to dig for meaning within, tune in, drop out, let the trip carry you somewhere, we promise it’s a good one.