In this, their first album since 2011’s, Bon Iver, singer-songwriter, Justin Vernon and his bandmates return with an experiment, albeit a well thought out one. On their third full length release, 22, A Million, Bon Iver’s dramatic change in style and presentation feels like less of a complete reinvention, and more like a natural progression for a band whose frontman has been making production and compositional style shifts for the last few years.
The opening track, ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, is immediately demonstrative of the extent to which Vernon has amped up the band’s use of electronics, samples and extra instrumentation. Whilst the track is, at its core, comprised of the delightful folk melodies and harmonies that Bon Iver is known for, it establishes itself as powerful in an entirely new way, through the inclusions of intensely altered vocals, synths and bizarrely congruent saxophone work from guest instrumentalists the Sad Sax of S**t. Another particularly interesting element to this track, and many of the others, is the use of a speaker crackling effect. I found this to be quite off putting at first, but upon subsequent listens, this effect seemed to fit quite well with this record’s overall aesthetic. They, in a way, highlight Vernon’s trademark melodies which shine through despite the crackling imperfections.
Ever since Bon Iver’s first record, For Emma Forever Ago¸ the band has experimented with vocal alterations. It would seem that, in the years since, they’ve all but mastered the use of auto-tune. Personally, in all but a very few cases, I can’t stand that particular technique of vocal alteration, which makes what the band have been able to do with it on this record all the more astounding to me. On ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’, Vernon has constructed a beautiful song comprised, entirely, from auto-tuned vocals. Vernon’s singing is enhanced here by these vocal effects and harmonised to perfection with multiple vocal tracks, to create one of 22, A Million’s most powerful tear-jerkers.
Interestingly however, much of this record’s emotional potency has little or nothing to do with its lyrics. In fact, on the majority of the tracks, either the vocals are distorted to the point where lyrics are hard to make out, or the lyrics themselves are so esoteric that there is very little point in trying to draw meaning from them. I would suggest that this is an intentional effort to prevent the listener from trying to interpret the album’s meaning. Listening to this record, I get the feeling that Vernon is tired of being over analysed. While some, more lyrically oriented, listeners may find this annoying, I quite enjoyed the freedom that came with not needing to dig into the lyrics to find my own meaning in this music. This record provides emotion in a much more visceral way, which I greatly appreciated.
With that idea in mind, allowing tracks like ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’, ‘8 (circle)’ and ‘33 “GOD”’ to simply wash over me, ended up being intensely powerful musical experiences. I particularly loved ‘8 (circle)’ with its pastoral melodies, serene choir effects and sweet, harmonious saxophones which behave almost like a vocal ensemble. Vernon’s singing on this track is at its most sincere, building in intensity as the track progresses. ‘8 (circle)’ is also the album’s meatiest song, clocking in at just over five minutes. Despite this, on an album this short, the relatively long song never becomes self-indulgent or outstays its welcome.
Unfortunately, 22, A Million, isn’t without its faults. Simply put, it’s too short. I finished the album with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction. A lot of these songs could be developed further. ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ and ‘33 “GOD”’ felt as if they were far too short. The record is also held back by a track that felt like filler. ‘____45_____’ is a short interlude before the album’s finale and is mired by over the top, self-indulgent saxophones and an unpleasantly unfocused sense of rhythm and melody, to the point where the track just feels like a poorly thought out mess.
Ultimately however, 22, A Million does well what many high profile albums from 2016 have failed to do. It has a well thought out structure and thematic through line, with a strong opening and an even stronger ending (‘00000 Million’ is definitely a highlight). The record feels planned out, but is filled with spontaneous, emotional shifts that serve the record’s ultimate purpose: to show how Vernon has developed and matured as a writer and producer, and that he can create astoundingly beautiful music without letting the listener into his head. His work here is not meant to be over analysed, but rather to simply be appreciated on a musical level, and when one does that, they get one of the most powerful musical experiments of the year. This is a development not unlike that of Radiohead’s Kid A in its representation of a more exciting musical path that Bon Iver has embarked upon.