After the fractured electronic textures of Bon Iver's 2016 album 22, A Million successfully took the project to the outer limits of where their sound could go, Justin Vernon pulled back from the edges of the avant-garde for something more familiar and less jaggedly experimental on 2019's I,I. With the help of a skilled cast of musicians robust enough to field five baseball teams and then some, Vernon uses every color in his paint box in crafting a record that takes in all the elements of past records and swirls them into something somber, expressive, intimate, and expansive all at the same time. The songs are built on convoluted rhythms and subtle washes of synths with stabs of horns and massed vocals surrounding Vernon's tortured wail and mumbled ramblings. Some of the tracks lean more in the direction of the small-scale electronic explorations of 22, A Million, with Vernon zeroing in on a tender feeling and transmitting it faithfully. Featuring the smooth vocals of Velvet Negroni, "iMi" is late-night R&B twisted into a heartbreaking knot, and "Marion" is an expanded take on the backwoods sound of early Bon Iver, with gentle strings caressing the melody. These quiet, intricate arrangements provide the perfect backing for Vernon's poetic lyrics and restrained vocals. Unfortunately, a majority of the songs go for bigger, more fleshed-out approach that surrounds Vernon with vocal choirs, swelling horns, and pounding drums and takes the album into the overblown territory of the second Bon Iver album. Too many of the songs suffer from the too-many-cooks syndrome, and every inch of the spectrum is covered with booming voices, immersive keyboards, and clattering percussion. It's clear that Vernon was aiming for something epic and important, but many of the melodies are strong enough to carry the sonic load and much of the album feels like a muddled mess. Whether it's soggy soft rock like the Bruce Hornsby-feature "U (Man Like)" or sub-Peter Gabriel power ballads like "Salem," far too much of the album feels like it was made to be played at summer festivals where the beer-soaked, sweat-damaged crowds might appreciate songs that drift and soar aimlessly while at the same time sounding vaguely important. It's clear after four albums that the best Bon Iver is the one that manages to keep the arrangements in check and doesn't swing for the fences. I,I takes many mighty swings and at best knocks out a few infield hits, while striking out far too often.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra
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