10 years ago, Justin Vernon, or Bon Iver as he’s more commonly known was recording his debut album at his father’s hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. The resultant album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was critically acclaimed and featured at the top of many end-of-year lists that year. The same thing happened with Bon Iver, Bon Iver four years later. But with critical success comes tremendous heaps of pressure for more of the same masterpieces, and it’s difficult to know how to respond to it. Take Radiohead for example: OK Computer was regarded as a pivotal moment in alternative rock, and people wanted more of the same for their next album. The band responded in 2000 by ditching the guitars and replacing them with electronics on Kid A, an album which divided opinion at first, but over time has been regarded as a masterpiece. This is exactly what Bon Iver has done with 22, A Million.
Bon Iver has responded by ditching the folky sounds of his beginnings with electronics, and 22, A Million may appear at first to be a bold example of that career cliché ‘The Difficult Third Record’, but once you start decoding the sounds (as well as the artwork and even the song titles themselves) do you start to realize just how intricate and compelling the themes and sounds are on this album. From the beginning, the album is deeply textured with a variety of processed vocals, samples, loops and synth beats that takes you on an adventure far away from his acoustic debut long ago. ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠’ is a good example of this; a distorted, glitchy background beat that is puzzled together with Vernon’s auto-tuned vocoder, whose almost-angelic disposition provides a stark contrast to the madness behind it. More often than not throughout this record, auto-tune is used as an instrument in itself, such as in the acapella ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’, which features a choir of Justin Vernons fed through vocoders, singing lyrics that almost sound like they’ve been pulled from the darkest corners of his soul.
Oh yeah, I should emphasize that the song titles themselves wouldn’t come up easily in casual conversation (Try saying ‘____45_____’ and ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠’), but as I mentioned, as bonkers as they may look on paper, they have a deeper meaning once they’ve been decoded. Take ‘666 ʇ’ for example. The title itself may suggest something to do with the devil and unnatural evils, but when he repeatedly sings “I’m still standing in the need of prayer”, you realize that any demonic connotations are used ironically, and that he’s actually trying to find a way to defeat it. Speaking of religion, ’33 “GOD”’ explores a deeper insight into a psalm from the bible about the crisis of faith and why it is far from saving him, and crafts a testament to human connection and the concept of duality.
Not all the songs on this album have been manipulated and glitches out completely. Even some of the more straightforward songs on this album provide some of the most beautiful moments on this album. ’29 #Strafford APTS’ is an acoustic piece at heart, but even some altered vocals and distorted electronic tones don’t take away the humanity behind it, while ‘8 (circle)’ shows that he’s still managing to keep the core sound of before intact. Then on the album’s piano-ballad closer ‘00000 Million’, we find him at his most vulnerable, crooning about how he’s worried about being unable to control his future, then there’s the line “If it’s harmed, it’s harmed me, it’ll harm, I let it in”, which finds him accepting that if something’s harmed him in the past, the damage is done, but he’s willing to ‘let it in’ and cope with it, and as such, brings the album to a close on a somber note.
There is only one thing I can compare this album to – the aforementioned Kid A by Radiohead. Its new electronic/hip-hop influenced direction simultaneously pushes away the audience and pulls them back in again. Bon Iver manages to find ways of keeping the peace whilst fighting battles that we’re so familiar with. Not only does it confirm to us all that Justin Vernon is a visionary of modern folk, but it has also set the new standard for experimentation in alternative music. Who knows where this new direction will lead to in the future, but much like Kid A, an album like 22, A Million could be the standard-bearer for reshaping the landscapes of modern music.
1. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)
2. 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠
3. 715 – CRΣΣKS
4. 33 “GOD”
5. 29 #Strafford APTS
6. 666 ʇ
7. 21 M♢♢N WATER
8. 8 (circle)
10. 00000 Million
Bon Iver ’22, A Million’ Line-up:
Justin Vernon – vocals, keyboards, guitar
Sean Carey – drums, keyboards, vocals
Matthew McCaughan – drums, vocals
Michael Lewis – bass, saxophone, keyboards, vocals
Emily Staveley-Taylor – guitar, vocals
Jessica Staveley-Taylor – vocals
Camilla Staveley-Taylor – vocals
Andrew Fitzpatrick – guitar, keyboards, vocals