Back from the dead winter of Eau Claire, WI comes Justin Vernon’s most realized work to date as Bon Iver explores a dense and intricate soundscape on his first release in 5 years.
Criticism within the music industry is an inherent part of its existence – publications like Pitchfork and Stereogum have amplified the need to constantly judge musical works, whether it be a single from an obscure artist or a one-off music video from a Top 40 band. Music criticism is an integral yet hounding part of an otherwise visceral music industry and something that artists and audience alike live and die by. The reason I bring this up is not to be self-patronizing, but to highlight how every artist comes under the spotlight and succumbs to critical pressure – no matter their popularity. Apparently, Bon Iver hasn’t gotten the message.
A lot has happened since 2007 for Justin Vernon, creator and musical cohort of the beloved indie folk staple. Hailing from comfy Eau Claire, WI, Vernon has make a career of eliciting his raw and unadulterated feelings towards crafting some of the decade’s most memorable hooks. What began as a small emotional dump in a remote shack transported him to another world, filled with multiple Yeezy and James Blake collaborations — something Vernon himself never really anticipated after signing with Jagjaguwar following his self-released LP, For Emma, Forever Ago.
Now, six years removed from his eponymous sophomore effort, Bon Iver is back with a bang. It’s not just another adventure of folksy yet sombering melodies, but rather, a paradigm shift in the core of what makes Vernon tick. Having experienced multiple manic attacks following the fallout after the support tour for Bon Iver, Vernon found himself distraught in the Greek Islands when the first notes of “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” floated into his head. From there, a sea of mixed feelings, anxiety, and lack of motivation trailed the path to making 2016’s “22, A Million”, a tangible product.
From the moment “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” softly bounces in your ears, it’s clear that this is a new Bon Iver. The melodies expertly contrast the ethereal drone underneath, while Vernon uses his beloved OP-1 to modulate and pitch his voice high above the rest of the soundscape. Scattered phrases, much like the album cover, are in constant turn with sampling, glitches, and the occasional “sad sax of shit”. Songs like the electro-marching “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠” and eerie “715 – CRΣΣKS” feature Vernon’s vocals ramped up to 11 with influence from his recent collaborations. “CRΣΣKS” pays homage to James Blake whilst simultaneously recalling the efforts on the final song of 2009’s “Blood Bank” EP, Woods.
The lyrical content is still classic Bon Iver however, relying more on the fit of words in relation to flow than many critics would like, but it’s a musical choice which I believe pays dividends when listening overall. After works dealing with the heat of an unexpected breakup and boiling emotions, “22, A Million” takes on a more existential approach to life, one that Vernon is still at odds with sorting out despite the fame and fortune of Bon Iver’s critical success. Don’t worry though, there’s still an immense amount of tense sentiments evoked, and it might be the project’s most serious and potent release to date.
On “____45_____”, Vernon and his newly invented dynamic vox changer, The Messina, tangle and fit with a garbled saxophone, fighting in conversation in the album’s most compelling and unique moments. Here, Vernon tackles the feelings of his ill-fated panic attack and sings about building himself back up (I been caught in fire / I been carved in fire). The beautifully light and feathered “29 #Strafford APTS” might be the most “Bon Iver” Bon Iver song on the ticket, but still remains sonically separated from past tunes. The crunched vocals sing of disillusioned relationships (Sure as any living dream / It’s not all then what it seems) and holds ground what Vernon is trying to figure out as he moves through his electric return to the forefront of indie music.
“8 (circle)” and “666 ʇ” both reach a soaring apex that feels like individual epiphanies within the album’s almost conceptual theme. With compressed drums and steady rhythms, Vernon wisely crafts ballads that relate universally upon first listen. Each detail, each layer, and each twitch are all there for a reason, and work to help the album produce surprises every time through.
To cap, “22, A Million” is a hauntingly beautiful reprise to the wonderful repertoire Justin Vernon has built over the years. Instead of bringing his audience something tried and safe, the latest Bon Iver takes a leap of faith, both literally and figuratively, deep into the eclectic sea of warming synths, stark vocals, and electronic madness that feels like it was made in the exact same place as “Emma”. Vernon himself suggests that the album is explicitly personal, and that it is most appropriately digested in a place of comfort, so as to relate most directly to whomever has the pleasure of listening for the first time. Anybody who can make a largely synthetic album sound so indescribably human is doing something right, and that’s precisely what you get with “22, A Million”. Enjoy the upcoming winter with this spinning as the snow falls, because that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.