A tricky listen with hidden depths. As a piece of audible, experimental art, you could do no better.
Titled 22, A Million, this third full-length collection of Justin Vernon’s ponderings is Bon Iver’s first album in five years and a strangely stark departure from what listeners might expect going in. His works are typically tinged with melancholy, but there’s something altogether experimental going on here in addition to its really bizarre track names.
Opener ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ feels crisp and bright, with the sweeping orchestral feel of Vernon’s signature vocals balanced against pips of synth. It’s reminiscent of the warmer sider of indie pop (alt-J or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires Of The City). It’s not a particularly astonishing track, I grant you, but it remains light and atmospheric to be a great in-road for an album that I was prepared to be confused by. Hold tight to it – it’s the last bastion of the recognisable you’re going to get for a while, slotting seamlessly into your autumn playlist, just as it brings you seamlessly into the rest of the album.
Other tracks feel a little darker – ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ has the same bright synth but adds a grunge-like treatment to the vocals, taking an aggressive step up in tempo that leaves you reeling – but these elements represent the twists and turns throughout the record and how it’s really rather full of rich contrasts. There’s no greater example of that than ‘33 “GOD”,’ which for every pitch-shifted vocal and sonic glitch drops a moment for Vernon’s voice to stand out, unadorned. There’s a moment when everything falls away and suddenly the softness of the lyrics shines through a cloud of synth as the listener suddenly hears an endearing “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea” before the heavy bass picks right back up again. The track then fades out into ‘29 #Strafford APTS,’ which is as delicate as his first work on album For Emma, Forever Ago and, well. You get the picture. After a rollercoaster of ups and downs, closing track ‘00000 Million’ sounds as prototypically Bon Iver as anything I’ve ever heard, like a compass arrow returning north spinning from where it’s been.
It’s a painstakingly produced album, with samples and effects and original compositions pieced together like a carefully hand-sewn tapestry. If there’s a spectrum that runs between low-fi, banjo backed acoustic work and the synth heavy, glitch-laced, and the experimental, then there’s a track on 22, A Million to represent every integer value. But for all that some tracks may come off bold and brash, the core remains the same. Lyrics are fluttering and frail with cries of the same hesitancy and fear. While Vernon’s early work was more overtly intimate and romantic, tracks here are existential. They can leave you a feeling a tad uncomfortable and exposed. Something about ‘21 M♢♢N WATER’ made the hair at the back of my neck stand up. Each track invites you in only to then leave you questioning, reading like a musical crisis of faith.
It’s not surprising that Bon Iver would step away from the purity, for lack of a better word, of acoustic folk to push his work harder, to take new inspirations, and ask new questions. Genre artists do this all the time, as such pushing strange and different boundaries. It’s only fitting, then, that 22, A Million would so overtly ask questions of its listeners while doing so and that ethereal new instrumentation would accompany such haunting questions.
22, A Million is out now via Jagjaguwar