Bon Iver —
The return of Bon Iver!
Some would say that the beloved indie folk band never left. Since the release of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), Justin Vernon has found himself on all corners of the music scene, releasing an album with Volcano Choir (the fantastic Repave (2013)) and collaborating with everyone from Kanye West to James Blake to Francis and the Lights. Indeed, Vernon has seemingly shown no remorse for teasing fans for five years, releasing a steady stream of music of “good but not Bon Iver” music. Alas, the long wait has finally come to an end – patient fans find their faith rewarded this year with 22, A Million.
While this new release marks the return of Bon Iver, it should be noted that it is musically distinct from Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Just as Bon Iver’s sophomore effort expanded on the sound of For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) by exhibiting a grander, fuller feel, 22, A Million takes Bon Iver’s folk roots and manipulates them under the influence of Vernon’s collaborative musical experiences from the last five years. Some of the influences heard include Blake-ian melodic vocal distortions (“715 – CRΣΣKS”, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”) and the surprisingly heavy use of samples throughout the album, à la West. Interestingly, there is also a touch of King Crimson with the occasional saxophone arrangement and prog rock-style song ending (“21 M♢♢N WATER”). Common intuition might suggest that infusing the sounds of James Blake, Kanye West and King Crimson all at once would be counterproductive. Instead, 22, A Million is impeccably produced and packaged musically, with an incredible level of depth to each track. It is an album that may alarm some with its aggressive futuristic sound, but it is one that is guaranteed to get better over time.
Best-enjoyed as a single body of work (a small task, as it clocks in at a mere 34 minutes), the album still features tracks that notably stand out. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” and “33 “GOD”” incorporate samples and voice distortions with Bon Iver’s signature ethereal sound to their maximum potential. Mostly gone from the album are the raw, stripped-down vocals from For Emma, Forever Ago, but numerous tracks still showcase Vernon’s voice (“8 (circle)”, “00000 Million”). The lyrics remain generally obtuse, but it is notable that the vocals are such a strong point on an album whose musical feel now relies heavily on the manipulation of electronic elements.
It would be fair to suggest that this album is “not for everyone”, even older Bon Iver fans. With its diverse sounds, some listeners may prefer a stronger melodic touch (conventional song structure is also more or less ignored). In certain cases, parts of the album sound downright bizarre, especially the aforementioned King Crimson-style ending to “21 M♢♢N WATER”. The newfound obsession with Wingdings is also a little bit discomforting.
Nevertheless, 22, A Million belongs in the “Kid A” category of albums – beautiful pieces of work that are also extremely ambitious. Even by Bon Iver’s incredibly high standards, it doesn’t disappoint.