Album of the Week: Bon Iver, 'i,i'

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Bon Iver, 'i,i'
Bon Iver, 'i,i' releases Aug. 30, 2019. (Jagjaguwar)
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The last time Justin Vernon sang about standing in a creek was on the heavily auto-tuned gospel ballad "715 -CREEKS," on 2017's anxious, soul-searching 22, A Million. "Turn around, you're my A-Team," he pleaded on that song, his loneliness pressing his feet further down into the mud. It was the perfect capsulation of just how paralyzing and alienating anxiety can be, and it spoke volumes about the mindset he was in when he created his last album.

He's back at the creek on his new album, i,i, but this time he's far from alone. "There were 6 of us sitting creekside, sifting fistfuls through the Green..." he sings on the peaceful closing track, "RABi," over a beautifully simple electric guitar pulse played by Jeremy Ylvisaker, concluding, "Well it's all fine, and we're all fine, anyway."

Vernon is in a much better place now, both in terms of his mental health and in terms of his proximity to his A-Team. He's said as much in recent interviews, but even if he hadn't you'd be able to hear it in the serene, bright tones of his new album, i,i. It's clear in the very first line you hear him sing: "Living in a lonesome way, had me looking other ways." Gone are the bouts of self-imposed isolation and doubt. The Justin Vernon of i,i is but one relieved voice among a chorus of friends and musical heroes.

On 22, A Million, Vernon took a hip-hop beatmaker's approach to sampling records and sounds, weaving them throughout a cascade of frantic rhythms and stacked saxophones. On i,i, he samples people instead: Bruce Hornsby, James Blake, Velvet Negroni, Naeem, and Bon Iver's newest member, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, to name a few. Each track features a handful of artists splitting the writing, producing, composing, and performing credits. It's a testament to the collaborative nature of the album's creation, and the reigning principle of the leaderless collective that Vernon and dozens of other musicians participate in, PEOPLE.

In that way, i,i feels like a very of-the-moment release. Much like The National's latest album, I Am Easy to Find, Bon Iver has embraced the idea of passing the mic, and using his gigantic platform to lift up the voices of the marginalized. Powerfully, the Native artists Joe Rainey Sr., a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Northern Minnesota, and Michael "Migizi" Sullivan, an Anishinaabe linguist from the Lac Courte Orielles Band of Ojibwe, are featured on a song that reckons with our country's past and present, "We." On "U (Man Like)," a chorus of women announce a simple, evocative call to action: "Man, improve."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but after listening to i,i several times and thinking about Vernon's journey, I can't help but see the parallels between mental health and community action. It's a beautiful thing to be able to get outside one's own head. Self-care isn't selfish; in fact it can empower us to be better friends, partners, organizers, and leaders. By opening himself up, Vernon opened up his band to countless new possibilities. Even though i,i is being marketed as the end of a season cycle of albums, I can't help but hear it as a new beginning.

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