"It might be over soon." The first five words of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million flutter down through warped, distorted vocal effects, and immediately, one thing rings true: This is not the Bon Iver you think you know.
However, it should come as no surprise that 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s most grandiose, difficult record to date. For a man who — seemingly by accident — cultivated a cult following after the wintry, acoustic loneliness of 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon has never particularly subscribed to any sort of predictability.
On Bon Iver, Bon Iver, the band’s sophomore effort marked the beginning of a venture into new sonic territory for the then-recently full-fledged band. Synthesizers were much more prominently featured. Full horn sections floated through full tracks. Justin Vernon was no longer "that one guy who locked himself in a cabin in Wisconsin." He had become a man who was no longer weighed down by a failed job, a failed love, a failed immune system, and a lost sense of self.
In the press release prior to the debut of 22, A Million was described as "part love letter, part final resting place of two decades of searching for self-understanding like a religion. And the inner-resolution of maybe never finding that understanding. The album’s 10 poly-fi recordings are a collection of sacred moments, love’s torment and salvation, contexts of intense memories, signs that you can pin meaning onto or disregard as coincidence."
"If Bon Iver, Bon Iver built a habitat rooted in physical spaces, then 22, A Million is the letting go of that attachment to a place."
It might be easy to assume 22, A Million sees Vernon exiting the throes of his penchant for uncertainty, but the truth couldn’t be further from that notion. The album is full of battles with existentialism, anxiety, apathy, fame, and, perhaps most notably, faith. Through the album’s poignant samples of classic spiritual and Gospel music (he samples Mahalia Jackson’s powerful live version of "How I Got Over" and references The Supreme Jubilees’ "Standing in the Need of Prayer"), the numerological song titles of "33 'GOD'"and "666 ʇ," or the multiple references to Vernon’s obviously strained relationship with God, we find some of the album’s most beautiful moments.
Musically, the album is gorgeous. Vernon’s digital manipulation of his signature falsetto creates cracks in the mask of his underlying vulnerability. On "715 – CRΣΣKS," one of the album’s standout tracks and most unguarded moments, you hear Justin’s voice dissipate into a pitchless, electronic screech on the line "And oh, I know it felt right / And I had you in my grasp." The album’s use of saxophone is also fantastic; throughout the entire album, the saxophone orchestra (hilariously named "Sad Sax of Shit") creates both warmth and emotion, most notable on the incredible "____45_____."
In a conversation with a small group of press members in a small Eau Claire hotel, Vernon said, "We made an instrument. Messina and Francis helped make this instrument … The instrument we were playing was only possible to play as two people, and it was just us making music as freely as humanly possible."
The album isn’t all experimentation and spaced-out vocal haze, however; "29 #Strafford APTS," "8 (circle)" and "00000 Million" are some of 22, A Million’s most immediately emotionally accessible tracks. Reminiscently bouncing from sounds that hearken to the days of For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and even the '80s soft-rock ballads of Bruce Hornsby, these songs show the true heart of the album.
At times, the album teeters on the edge of pretentious, with its inventive vocabulary (I dare you to try and find Merriam-Webster’s definitions of the terms "fuckified," "astuary king" or "paramind") and its almost completely unpronounceable song titles, but it’s done in such an endearing fashion that after a while, it’s almost impossible to think of it any other way.
In just 35 minutes, Justin Vernon and company managed to once again create an album that sounds truly unique. There are seldom few artists who can even emulate this sound, let alone fully encapsulate it. Bon Iver’s ability to continuously push its own boundaries — while somehow creating an increasing sense of home with each release — is a feat in and of itself.
Even through its flaws, 22, A Million remains as unashamedly a Bon Iver record as ever —
begging the question that maybe its flaws were purposeful — and yet another absolutely astonishing entry into the incredible catalog of Bon Iver.
by Trevor Paxton
Song You Need To Hear: "8 (circle)"
22, A Million