There are very few acts in the world who can appear whenever they want. Many people want it, but there never feels pressure for a new Bon Iver record. There was three years between the debut For Emma, Forever Ago and the follow-up Bon Iver and then five years in between that and 22, A Million.
At one point, it felt as if another Bon Iver record may never eventuate. Each Bon Iver albums feels as if it could comfortably be their last because the parting sentiments are always so strong – a sequal would only water down in potency. Thankfully, Justin Vernon and co never offer a sequel. Instead, Vernon reveals a different dimension to Bon Iver – more instruments, different production and a skewed lyrical point of view.
While 22, A Million packs the same emotional punch as its predecessor, there are no comparisons necessarily. It’s an album that could stand alone as its own body of work without any prior understanding of the band and that’s because it’s inventive, exciting and poignant. You only have to look at the batshit tracklist to know that this is an experimental Bon Iver record. And it is. Vernon has never played with electronics like this before, even when he’s helping out his buddy Kanye. From the opening alien-like coos of, “it might be over soon,” it’s clear this isn’t Vernon in the same solitary woods. Where he’s previously penned misery, this is Vernon looking for positivity in a wasteland.
“I’m gonna shout all my trouble over,” a voice howls in the opener 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and that may be the binding motif of the record. Production-wise, this is the least clarity Vernon’s ever delivered. The beats are glitchy and at time you’ll feel like you need to shift your headphones but when there is a moment of crisp, clarity, it’s more powerful than ever. That lone voice signing, “it might be over soon,” is one of Bon Iver’s biggest emotional triumphs.
From there the sound continues to degrade. The beats of 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠ crackle and rumble but Vernon’s falsetto howls above. Where brass was once used to be melancholic, here it’s used to create chaos. A storm that comes and goes throughout the entire LP. After the storm always comes the calm though and there are short, beautiful moments plotted throughout like 715 – CRΣΣKS – a two minute, heavily auto-tuned cut that ends on the lyric, “turn around you’re my A-team”. Still, nothing hits the heart more than Vernon talking directly to the person he loves or loved.
33 “GOD” is the track that sounds most like Bon Iver of old. It’s sweeping, folk-centred and expansive but there are connections to the modern world that make it feel more relatable than ever. Vernon sings about the Ace Hotel and accentuates his words with robotic voices. A song like this would’ve once felt comfortable for Vernon but instead here, he’s yanked himself out of his comfort zone – torn up his sonic and physical world. There’s a certain sunny aesthetic to every song on this record but it’s not necessarily that Vernon’s happier, it’s just that he sounds more content with not over-analysing anything.
That’s why, while the production may be detached and complicated at times, his sentiments are some of his most simple ever. He finishes the record by singing, “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in.” That’s almost a concession that nothing comes untainted and this record in its glitchy, gritty form is tainted but it’s beautiful.
Vernon told The Guardian in 2011, “I’m really confused right now.” He felt displaced after his family had moved away from his hometown Eau Claire while he still felt roots there. While there’s no direct mention of stability, there’s a comfort attached to this record. He’s launched his own festival in his hometown, made musical connections that are daring but right and seemingly stopped carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
There’s a centrepiece of each Bon Iver record, one that bundles up every emotion into the middle of your chest and expands it. 8 (circle) is that shining moment. The sonic backdrop slowly expands, without every leading to a climax. Instead it hovers in this sweet, simple spot. “I’ve locked up my failures,” Vernon sings. In the chorus he claims, “I will run.” It’s a statement of accepting the past and moving forward to the future and in the context of this record which is basically situated in a messy, confusing world, it’s beautiful.
In a way 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s ugliest record. It’s full of convoluted sounds, disconnected samples and digitally eroding beats but in all that there’s a flickering light. It’s their most enthralling setting yet – accepting that nothing’s perfect and yet finding perfection in those very imperfections. At the hand of anyone else, this would be a convoluting message but Vernon has is one of the greatest emotional songwriters of our generation. In many ways, 22, A Million is the first truly risky and divisive Bon Iver record and yet at the base of it, there’s a genuity that shines above all the innovative production. A beautiful, succinct record that’s as perfect as it is imperfect.
22, A Million is out on Friday.