News of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million was met with surprise and delight, but perhaps not the level with which it would have done back in 2013 – some had grieved and moved on. And maybe that’s the right way to receive this album. Maybe that’s the only way to judge it based on exactly what it is. Maybe that’s why, as you hit ‘play’, you may be feeling genuinely apprehensive.
Opening track ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ has been around for a few weeks now, and while its weird, compressed hook is a departure from the soft, gentle guitar sound I still somehow manage to associate with Bon Iver, it is not a surprise. The Blood Bank EP and Bon Iver introduced us to heavy synth use, and 2014’s ‘Heavenly Father’ managed to maintain listenability and familiarity while removing us completely from our For Emma, Forever Ago safety net. Vernon’s opening refrain, ‘where you gonna look for confirmation?’ feels like sunshine through clouds. Christ, it’s like balm to the soul.
‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ too has been about for a while now and though its rubbery, distorted bass is immediately jarring, Vernon manages to soften the song to the point of enjoyable and cathartic tumult. This song also brings to light the fact that across their entire body of work, Bon Iver’s lyrics are often borderline unintelligible, and if you can make them out, they can tend toward nonsense. And you know what else? They don’t really matter. Vernon’s voice is an instrument, and in it we hear snatches of context-less, poetic beauty.
Track three, ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’ is another rapid change in tone, with big, heavy, auto-tuned vocals leading the way. It’s bold. Honestly, it might be better to hear Justin sing this without the addition of a vocoder. The song’s tune and structure is pleasant and interesting, but the instrumentation is so sparse that you can’t help feeling slightly alienated by the machinery.
On to ‘33 “GOD”’, and a gorgeous beatdown of gentle, somehow invitational piano joined by crystal-clear Vernon voice. The song keeps its pace with a kind of percussive, background muttering, shifting to static, distorted drum sound later, and joined by an unexpectedly heavy bass. The song manages to stay light though, with some synthy string sound maintaining balance throughout. Those of you who’ve seen Bon Iver live will know that it’s typically a much more lively affair than their recorded sound and trust me, this will make for a fantastic live show.
’29 #Strafford APTS’ possibly shares its roots with ‘Dusty Road’ by previous Vernon project DeYarmond Edison, with a stronger country influence than, arguably, any other Bon Iver offering. It’s unexpected and pretty, if somewhat one-dimensional.
Halfway through the album a slight reliance on the electronic begins to show itself, leaving the sonic landscape slightly lacking. The album begins to feel a tad short on songs. There are a few and they are truly beautiful, but in between there’s a lot of noise. It all leaves me yearning for some substance; something to connect with.
‘8 (circle)’ is one of the album’s true songs. It has soul and melody and beautiful vocals and wonderful, carefully constructed percussion. We’re joined by a load of brass halfway through, as well as more layered vocal. This has potential to be huge live – the sheer size of the sound toward the end of this song is rapturous.
The cleanliness of Vernon’s voice on parts of this album can leave one feeling taken aback. Combine that with the sparseness of instruments on tracks like ‘____45_____’ and you have what is in places a very intimate listening experience. ‘____45_____’ feels a very open and honest exposition – albeit one with pleasant and fun snatches of banjo. To hear Vernon tell it, he’s had a bit of a hard time these past few years, and the repeated line, ‘I’ve been caught in fire. I stayed down,’ feels a very clear reference to those tough moments.
Final track ‘00000 Million’ feels like a departure for Vernon; from Bon Iver and from us, the listener. If For Emma, Forever Ago was a record about isolation and getting away from it all, 22, A Million seems, figuratively at least, a going home. The whole album has had undertones of his earlier musical undertakings, juxtaposing unusually folky or country-esque tropes with stark, cold, electronic sounds. At times the record is energetic, but never climactic – and that feels somehow apprpriate. If this album is as stated, ‘the final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding,’ then the low-key end to this record is not a climax, but the drawing of a line. We have come full circle.
Overall then, this is a conflicted album exploring a full spectrum of emotion including, one feels, regret. Even from the beginning, 22, A Million looks to its end, and reaches its conclusion with relief. It might not be what you would call a satisfying listen, but for those for whom Bon Iver has been a narrator, a narrative, a sounding board or a mirror, it’s the conclusion to a journey, providing closure where there could easily have been none. It is a body of work worthy of more time than given here, and we urge you to go away and give it the time and care it deserves upon its release.