“22, A Million” Bon Iver

Bon Iver

22, A Million Album Review

Jagjaguwar

Released September 30, 2016

Genre: Folktronica, Glitch Folk, Art Pop, I Don’t Even Know But It’s Great

Blonde, A Moon Shaped Pool, and now 22, A Million ; 2016 has been a year of moving, significant, and compelling records from artists who have not released anything for more than four years. 22, A Million joins the pack as one of those rare records where the artist completely revolutionizes their sound, simultaneously challenges yet comforts its audience, and so boldly defies categorization. Bon Iver takes a sharp and sudden turn into the strange and experimental, to the cryptic and ambiguous, while also crafting the same emotional, heart breaking, and bleakly honest music that’s defined them to this point. Long gone is the skeletal and cold folk music, and in comes music that redefines Bon Iver for the masses. 

Where For Emma, Forever Ago & Bon Iver found its way to listeners’ hearts through its bare and lush, respectively, instrumentation, 22, A Million – while shrouded in a mysterious veil of cryptic imagery/words, glitched and heavily altered vocals/instrumentation – still manages to deliver the same fully realized songs of longing and uncertainty. Now however, it feels more passionate and urgent, and is the beginning of a new era for Bon Iver; charting us through strange territory, 22, A Million feels much more existential and uncertain rather than woefully optimistic. 

“22 (OVER S∞∞N)” opens the record, introducing us to this new phase in Bon Iver’s discography with a high-pitched vocal sample from Vernon processed through an OP-1 – a combination of a synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer – laced over very skeletal and vintage piano chord progressions; its lyricism (“it might be over soon”) contemplates the dilemma of impermanence, even the short thresholds of the instruments reiterate this idea of evanescence. Bon Iver’s lyrics have always been based around a narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and an end. What makes this opener such a powerful intro is its sudden ending and nomadic structure, indicating a more dismal and uncertain tone for the record.

“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” opens with heavily distorted drums and Vernon’s heavily processed vocals blasted through a vocoder; it’s a stark, drastic, and bold change in pace/tone that accentuates Bon Iver’s evolution of sound so clearly and so brilliantly. The symbolism of the two dice, and the binary code of 10 (which means “2”, perfect for the track listing), contribute thematically to the track’s lyricism of risk taking and its necessity in life: “darling don’t a failure fright/time’s the raker/ and i’ll rack it up”. However, the risk simply just adds weight to this feeling of uncertainty, and impermanence.

“715 – CRΣΣKS” can be a direct correlation to 2009’s Blood Bank EP acapella auto-tune jam “Woods”, for the track too is another acapella auto-tune jam. Where in “Woods” Vernon harmonizes with himself – with the softest vocoder/auto-tune alterations, on “715 – CRΣΣKS” the vocals echo one another, like after shocks of an earthquake. The frailty in Vernon’s voice penetrates past its digital mask and translates the harrowing and heart wrenching message through aggressive distortion. While its Auto-Tune approach may seem distant in theory, in practice it perfectly encapsulates the chaotic and distraught mental state of someone suffering from alienation, isolation, and loneliness. In it he sings of trying to get his feet out of a creek, and with such passion and conviction you just want to help him out. It seems so minuscule but Vernon makes it feel necessary and important.  If “Woods”‘ was all about isolation, then “715 – CRΣΣKS” is the song’s message multiplied ten-fold. It’s future folk (for lack of a better term), while still remaining singular and distinct to Bon Iver’s sound.

“33 “GOD”‘s” religious correlation, along with the song length and the intro of a Psalm verse in the lyric video, finds Vernon doubting religion and questioning the existence of God, heavily repeating a loose translation of Psalm 22: “why are you so far from saving me?”.  Furthermore, its contemplation on the necessity and pros of human connection, and the intense emotional repercussion that ensue during the troubling phase of doubting a relationship are all brought to the foreground; it’s both romantic (“We had what we wanted: your eyes/ (When we leave this room it’s gone)/ With no word from the former” and cynical (“I didn’t need you that night/ Not gonna need you anytime/ Was gonna take it as it goes”). Complementing the heavy metaphysical, religious, and romantic themes are thunderous drums, an atmospheric piano lead, and Vernon’s fleeting vocals that sound as if he has to say the verses quick before he runs out of breath; again, impermanence is a key motif kept alive through the vocal delivery and instrumentation.

“29 #Strafford APTS” finds Vernon’s voice at its most sorrowful and bare. It’s probably the closest a song gets to following suit in Bon Iver’s early works, with an acoustic guitar, gentle piano, and lush strings constantly battling the encroaching electronic supplements. Mid-song a scream ensues, and it’s one of the most gut-wrenching moments 22, A Million, or Bon Iver for the matter, has to offer. Setting has always been a key component of Vernon’s music.His winter sabbatical to his family’s remote cabin in Wisconsin helped shaped the ghostly and cold atmosphere of For Emma, Forever Ago. Here, he forcefully alludes to his hometown (the lyrics “hallucinating Claire/Nor the snow shoe light or the autumns/ Threw the meaning out the door” symbolize Eau Claire, Wisconsin) and meditates on how time feels permanent. The song’s heavy folk leanings help reinforce this opposition towards impermanence, and the feeling of nostalgia and yearning for time to stand still. It’s a heartfelt and sorrowful moment in the middle of an album all about looking ahead, and the juxtaposition hammers in the album’s message of uncertainty to an insane degree of empathy.

“666 ʇ” is a beautiful tapestry of warm & hazy guitar riffs, electronic bleeps, and faint horns that all comfortably sit in the back of the mixing, leaving Vernon’s vocoder-ed falsetto front & center. Emphatic drums and glitched vocal samples help make this track a cathartic release combined with the poetic lyricism of battling ones demons. The juxtaposition of the demonic iconography (666) and the lyric “I’m still standing in/ Still standing in the need of prayer/ The need of prayer” helps create a tension of a battle Vernon is struggling to win. “21 M♢♢N WATER”, a more ambient track, is an exercise in soundscapes. While Vernon’s vocals do end up making an appearance, they are minor elements in this chaotic smorgasbord of atonal melodies and dissonance; trumpets, synths, drones, pitched up/down vocals, etc. It start off beautifully but builds into an absolute mess that is practically un-listenable in the last minute.

“8 (circle)”, an album highlight, is quite simply the most beautiful track Bon Iver has ever recorded. A warm blanket of horns and serene synths envelop Vernon’s gorgeous tenor vocals, which lays over a minimal back beat. Vernon’s lyrics, while poetic, are at their most cryptic and dense here. Themes of longing, regret, love, and the comfort of ignorance make up most of the stanzas; the track slowly builds with MORE horns and MORE layered vocals,  to an extraordinary and alluring climax that will make the strongest of Bon Iver fans weep, or at the very least, cower up in a fetal position in the middle of the night. “____45_____’s” stunning blend of an auto-tuned saxophone and Vernon’s vocals create this overlapping tornado of sounds that end with a twangy banjo coda that rings off into the ether.

The closing track, “00000 Million”, is a haunting piano ballad that starts off organic and traditional before Vernon’s vocals slowly become harmonized with the backing vocals through auto-tune. Vernon here is at his most straightforward and easiest to understand, especially when understanding the album’s message. Vernon ponders his inability to control his future, the purpose of friends and family in his life, his depression, personal experiences, biblical influences, and so much more. It’s a heady and stuffed song that is given full attention as the music remains skeletal, bare, and wistful. Vernon ends the track on a self deprecating note stating “Well it harms it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in” – resonating with those who hope for a better tomorrow, while going through the pain, sorrow, trials, and tribulations that come with existence, or anything shitty in their lives per se.

Kanye West said that Bon Iver is his favorite artist, styling it as “I love Justin the way Kanye loves Kanye” (a reference to his disappointing 2016 LP The Life of Pablo) and it makes sense, if you think about it hard enough. 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s Kid A; it’s an album that completely redefines a band’s sound, it’s an album that contains a deeply personal message within the numerous pits and crevices of its cavernous instrumentation and cryptic lyricism, and boldly challenges its fans while still holding its hand out as a guide into the unknown. It’s an amalgamation of Vernon’s idiosyncratic nature – personal, emotional, and musical – and while it is a huge step in sound, it still remains singular, distinct, and can be attributed to Vernon & Co.

In 2012, Vernon said in an interview that Bon Iver “were winding down”, further stating that “There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it – if at all – I’ll feel better about it and be renewed or something to do that”. If you listen closely to Vernon’s pained ten songs on 22, A Million, you can feel an awakening, both spiritual and metaphysical; and it’s the sound of a door opening, and the pathways that it leads to are endless. It’s uncertain, yes, but this time around there’s a tinge of optimism hanging in air.

PRETTY NEAT MUSIC

FAV TRACKS: 22 (OVER S∞∞N), 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, 715 – CRΣΣKS, 33 “GOD”, 29 #Strafford APTS, 666 ʇ, 8 (circle), ____45_____, 00000 Million

LEAST FAV TRACK: 21 M♢♢N WATER

SCORE: (9.4/10)

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