The early release was only part of the surprise of a joyfully experimental record, writes Ed Power.
Bon Iver’s Sounds From A Safe Harbour performance at Cork Opera House in 2017 was beautiful, bonkers and deeply esoteric. Much the same could be said of his fourth album, which the artist born Justin Vernon has surprise-released several weeks ahead of schedule.
Like Radiohead before him, Vernon has decided the smartest guarantee of a long-term career is to grow progressively more inscrutable. His 2007 debut was relatively straight-forward folk-pop.
But the two albums that followed saw him shroud his songs in avant-garde hip hop, electronic and even Michael McDonald-style yacht rock. The weirder he waxes the more fascinated we are by his journey from the backwoods of Wisconsin to the outer-limits of experimental pop.
Clearly, there’s no stopping him now. With i,i he doubles down on the strategy of baffling as many listeners as possible.
Indeed, the LP feels, in the best sense, like a mind-meld between 2016’s 22, A Million – where he sounded like Phil Collins covering Kid A – and 2011’s Bon Iver, which was recorded in the aftermath of his collaboration with Kanye West.
Thus long-time fans who wish he’d go back to the straightforward strumming of Skinny Love and Flume may be disappointed (they may also think their stereo has malfunctioned).
But fans of wilfully out there music will be overjoyed. On iMi, Vernon and fellow traveller James Blake battle with Frank Ocean-esque squalls of processed feedback.
A more surprising cameo is by 1980s pop-rocker Bruce Hornsby on the fluttering U (Man Like), though the real stars here are the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The song is unsettling and soulful and, much like the rest of this lulling triumph, sneaks up on when you aren’t really paying attention.