WHO ARE THEY? The pride of Eau Claire, Wis. — musically speaking, anyway. More specifically, they are eccentric singer-songwriter/studio rat Justin Vernon and the latest incarnation of his experimental art-folk ensemble, augmented here by VIPs like James Blake, Bruce Hornsby, The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, BJ Burton, S. Carey, Phil Cook, Moses Sumney and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner.
WHAT IS THIS? Their fourth full-length studio album in 12 years — which also happens to be and their fourth album to feature a mid-title comma — is the followup to 2016’s 22, A Million. i,i (apparently pronounced “I, comma, I”) is also something of a surprise, since it was originally scheduled to be released Aug. 30, but arrived three weeks early, following a large number of public listening parties.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Art with a capital A. As always, Vernon and co. use the studio as an instrument in their creations, layering and filling songs with glitches and twitches and shape-shifting clouds of sound and texture. Which is not to say it’s all style and no substance — no matter how itchy and scratchy the electronics and sonics, no matter how far inward or outward the arrangement spirals, Vernon’s stream-of-consciousness songcraft, melancholy melodies and tenderly keening falsetto crooning remain the warm beating heart of these songs.
WHAT WOULD BE A BETTER TITLE FOR THIS ALBUM? Surpri,ise!
HOW SHOULD I LISTEN TO IT? From front to back — unlike your typical collection of individual tracks, this album feels like a journey through the various nooks and crannies of Vernon’s heart, soul and mind.
WHAT 10 WORDS DESCRIBE IT? Unconventional, adventurous, dense, fascinating, introspective, rich, welcoming, emotive, immersive, otherworldly.
WHAT ARE THE BEST SONGS? That’s a tough call — partly because 1) These are far from standard-issue ditties built around sharp hooks and catchy choruses, and 2) There’s so much going on in these expansive, evolving tracks that they sometimes feel like mini-medleys all on their own.
WHAT WILL MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY SAY? ‘Well, I guess we won’t be hearing this on the radio anytime soon.’
HOW OFTEN WILL I LISTEN TO THIS? If you’re the kind of person who likes to power down, dim the lights, put on the headphones and listen intently to some mind-expanding music, you’ve come to the right place.
IF THIS ALBUM WERE A MOVIE, WHAT KIND OF MOVIE WOULD IT BE? A weird European arthouse film that’s chock full of random characters, bizarre edits, a meandering plotline and no real point — but is still transfixing, and seems slightly different every time you watch it.
SHOULD I BUY, STREAM OR STEAL IT? Buy, buy.