2011 was a big year for Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver. His multiple feature credits on Kanye West’s instant classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy left him riding a massive wave of momentum that carried into his own critically-acclaimed album, Bon Iver. The project featured Vernon’s potent emotional sincerity delivered over adventurously expansive instrumentation and transformed Bon Iver into indie darlings seemingly overnight. At the peak of his popularity, Vernon did exactly what fans might have predicted, seemingly retreating into the shadows for five long years.
Bon Iver hasn’t necessarily been dead since 2011 (he did significant work behind the scenes on West’s Yeezus), but one could be forgiven for thinking such. The first true signs of life from Vernon came earlier in 2016, in the form of rare features on tracks by Francis and the Lights and James Blake. The sudden reappearance was surprising to say the least, and the confusion only grew when this video was uploaded to Bon Iver’s YouTube account on July 22.
These strange, sampled vocals were eventually revealed to be the opening moments of the song “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and the first new music from Bon Iver in over half a decade. Just over two months later, Bon Iver released its third full length album, 22, A Million.
I’ll be honest; I can’t recall ever being so immediately transfixed by a piece of music as I was by the brief preview of “22 (OVER S∞∞N).” Within the context of the album it thrusts the listener into the massive shift in direction 22, A Million is for Bon Iver. It truly is “glitchy” folk music, a concept that seems inherently strange but is executed beautifully again and again on this album. Its lyrics are characteristically abstract, occasionally even completely made-up (perhaps most notably the use of the term “fuckified” on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”). Simply put, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” is one of the best songs of the year, perhaps the best thing Vernon will ever make, and an immensely captivating opening to this landmark album in the Bon Iver discography.
By now you might be wondering what is going on with those track titles. No, there’s nothing wrong with my keyboard, those are actually the names of the songs. Other highlights include “29 #Strafford APTS,” “21 M◊◊N WATER” and “715 – CR∑∑KS,” just to name a few. The vaporwave-esque aesthetic the album presents, while ultimately distracting and unnecessary, is not entirely pointless; it reflects the album’s obsession with numbers, especially within the context of passing time, a theme that comes to fruition in the album’s closing track “00000 Million” as Irish folk artist Fionn Regan sings “… the days have no numbers.” Numbers and math run parallel to Vernon’s emotional delivery and personal lyrics throughout the album, representing a distinct addition to the Bon Iver formula that mirrors the addition and emphasis of electronic sounds on the album.
Nowhere are these electronic additions more prevalent than on the shockingly ugly “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” that undoubtedly pulls a great deal of influence from Yeezus. The immensely crushed and distorted percussion is accompanied by a litany of vocal effects placed on Justin’s voice, creating a cathartic sound about as far removed from Bon Iver’s original log-cabin vibe as possible. Another standout is “8 (circle),” the album’s longest track that most calls back to older Bon Iver sounds. The backing guitars give way to off-kilter horn accents, as Vernon’s lyrics seem to convey a plea for forgiveness and moving on.
As if Bon Iver’s commitment to innovation wasn’t already apparent, a new instrument, named the Messina after Vernon’s studio engineer Chris Messina, was invented specifically for this album, and is most prominently featured on the track “715 – CRΣΣKS.” Similar in sound to a vocoder (think the robot vocals at the end of Kanye’s “Runaway”) the Messina splits Justin’s vocals into multiple harmonies at once, creating a much stranger sound than typical autotune. This track is delivered without any further musical accompaniment, intentionally reminiscent of the song “Woods,” famously sampled by (you guessed it) Kanye West on “Lost in the World.” It’s an impressive and striking piece of minimalism that forms a stark contrast to the expansive sounds of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and is just a piece of the fascinating hot-and-cold relationship 22, A Million has with the rest of the Bon Iver discography.
As far as negatives go, I found “21 M◊◊N WATER” slightly underwhelming as compared to the rest of the album.
That’s about it.
22, A Million is a veritable masterpiece. This is far from the first time this has been said about a Bon Iver album, but to see such progression from an artist as accomplished as Vernon is truly awe-inspiring. The metamorphosis his sound has undergone over the past five years is just as sonically pleasing as it is fascinating, a balance that is notoriously difficult to achieve in experimental music. I can see hardcore Bon Iver fans reacting negatively to the increased emphasis on vocal effects and electronic sounds (it reminds me a bit of the divide among fun. fans over the autotune in Some Nights), but Justin Vernon sounds like a man ready to leave the world behind on 22, A Million.