For his first LP since 22, A Million, Justin Vernon dials back the avant-pop extremes a bit, giving human larynxes and other acoustic instruments more room to flex amidst a landscape of synths and vocal-processing veils. You wouldn’t guess it from opening minute or so of the similarly-comma-smitten i, i — which begins with an abstract stretch of studio patter, AutoTuney sputtering and fire-extinguisher-blast beats. It feels like a doubling-down on the future-pop abstractions, before all that drops away, leaving just Vernon’s naked voice, alone and multi-tracked, on on “iMi,” crooning against melodies sketched with plucked strings. But soon, the beat-static returns, along with the processed vocals and a huge, unlikely swarm of big-band brass, all of it somehow gelling into a fantastic whole.
It feels like a declaration of identity for an artist who broke through with, and grew a fan base from, an LP defined by near-mythic bearded-folk primitivism. Of course, at the core of all Vernon’s albums are potent songs, branded with his magnificently swooning melodic sensibility and gorgeous singing. This set has a few of those songs. “Hey Ma” opens what sounds like a sonar pulse, gleaming synth swells, and Vernon testifying with his signature cryptic passion, its chorus hinging on phrases like “living in coal mine” and the achingly simple, simply brilliant “Tall time you called your ma/Hey Ma! Hey Ma!,” an earworm that mothers worldwide should have reason to be grateful for.
Another is “U (Man Like),” which begins with piano chords conjuring lite-rock hitmaker and ex-Grateful Dead pianist Bruce Hornsby — who is in fact playing them (see Absolute Zero, his recent solo LP, made with contributions by superfan Vernon and many Vernon collaborators). The song is utterly inviting; you can almost hear it jam-segueway-ing into Hornsby’s 1986 signature “The Way It Is.” Yet its falsetto flows conjure no one as much as Vernon’s late upper-Midwest neighbor Prince, with a swirl of lyrical images — Brecht’s Pirate Jenny, the hellhound Cerberus going AWOL, America turning a blind eye to the needy “sleeping in your streets,” and, maybe most strikingly, men caught up in “phallic repetition” who need to change their shit up — all delivered by Vernon and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in heady arrangements that sometimes vary from line to line.
The effect is dazzling throughout, thanks in part to a packed guest list which, in addition to the aforementioned and assorted pop-futurist co-writers (BJ Burton, Francis Starlite) also includes James Blake, Moses Sumney, Jeremy “Velvet Negroni” Nutzman and various members of The National. Vernon’s been working with that group’s Aaron Dessner in both the group Big Red Machine and PEOPLE, an art collective and web platform that encourages unfettered creativity. You can feel that vibe here in music that is never less than engaging, but can sometimes feel like a string of inventive, often breathtakingly beautiful moments that don’t always cohere into a whole.
Still, that can deliver an aesthetic satisfaction of its own. And when the earthiness and digital disconnect come together like they do on the gospel-flavored “Naeem,” it’s rapturous. That song conjures the ecological crisis (“tell them ill be passing on/ tell them were young mastodons …it’s suddenly paths, mama/ it aint about class, mama”) as does the fractured, unnerving follow-up “Jelmore” (“a gas mask on his arm/ and one by one by one we’ll all be gone”). And “Faith,” another highlight, is a song about just that. The youth choir returns, along with the robot-chipmunk screeches, and lyrics that, even if they read as oblique, don’t feel that way, and the music comes across as profoundly consoling and uplifting. It’s the sound of artists keeping the faith, in their own way, and maybe helping us keep ours.