Album Review: Bon Iver, “22, A Million”

22-a-millionWe’re a long way from “Skinny Love.”

Within seconds of dropping the needle on Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, that much should be apparent. The new album arrived Sept. 30th, more than 5 years removed from the critically-acclaimed and commercially successful Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Is 22, A Million worth the wait? Its bold experimentation certainly won’t appeal to all Bon Iver fans, but for those willing to stick with it, it slowly reveals itself as a bracing and original artistic project.

22, A Million has drawn comparisons to Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, another album of electronic wizardry that was far from the gentle folk of the artist’s beginnings, and thus also from audience expectations. But that comparison isn’t perfect, because Vernon’s experimentation began at least as far back as 2009, with the release of “Woods,” the closing track on the Blood Bank EP. Given that each of the three Bon Iver LPs are so sonically different from one another, I’m skeptical of those who claim 22, A Million represents a departure from Bon Iver’s signature sound, simply because a “signature sound” is, in this case, difficult to identify. Who’s to say that For Emma, Forever Ago contains more of Bon Iver’s essence than 22, A Million? Why assume that first albums have some essential artistic priority? In any case, what is clear to me is that Justin Vernon & Co. continue to make each release unique, memorable, and genre-bending.

The album artwork for 22, A Million is a bewildering array of symbols and numbers. It looks like one of those accountant calculators was combined with a typewriter. Those who enjoy poring over liner notes will enjoy the booklet that accompanies this release. Each song is identified by both a number and a title, and utilizes all of the weird characters that you never press on your keyboard. Opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” begins with watery, pitch-shifted vocals that shroud a catchy melody. With the listener effectively hooked, Bon Iver proceeds to whisk away listeners for 35 unforgettable, though not perfect, minutes.

Most of the songs lack traditional structures. At first, this makes them somewhat difficult to remember. I found the album requires more spins than usual for my brain to begin to form an imprint of melodies and lyrics. There are jarring transitions, like the plodding barrage of rhythm that kicks off “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄,” and euphoric highs, like the angelic synthesizer float of “8 (circle),” which dabbles in more traditional song structures and is the highlight of the album’s second half. The drums frequently sound industrial, and at one point, the saxophones (all 150 of them, apparently) break down into free-jazz skronk that calls to mind the car horns of a busy street (and the wilder moments of Fleet Foxes’ “The Shrine / An Argument“).

Throughout, Vernon’s lyrics are oblique but engaging, and certainly don’t detract from the album’s meticulous production and instrumentation. When Vernon sings, “I’d be happy as hell if you stayed for tea,” it’s a moment of rare straightforwardness; the equivalent of Thom Yorke dropping a line like, “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train” in the middle of A Moon Shaped Pool.

Before buying this album, I worried that I would find it too “out there.” But I continue to find new gems hidden in its mix, and I suspect it’s an album that needs to be appreciated over time (and with headphones).

I find myself trying to explain its success. Perhaps one reason that Bon Iver are able to experiment without making listeners feel alienated. Even when they travel down a rabbit hole of production and layered effects, there is always the payoff of a stellar song buried beneath. A second reason is that Vernon excels at obsessively crafting details without losing the bigger picture. His production flourishes don’t obscure; they find new ways to reveal. It’s telling that, during the recording of The Staves’ If I Was at Vernon’s Wisconsin studio, he posted a note to himself above the mixing board. It read: “Don’t lose the plot.”

So, in a way, we’re not a long way from “Skinny Love.” Vernon is still standing in the gap, and still finding ways to bear his soul. Yet he now also uses music and lyrics to couch his vulnerability, to make it bearable to share with an ever-larger audience. Thus, while 22, A Million is an undeniably difficult album, it is certainly more than “staggeringly lovely sonic wallpaper.” It is a fully conceptualized album that carefully (and sometimes hesitantly) beckons listeners to widen their horizons. It’s refreshing to listen to an experimental album that questions the fame and success afforded by prior albums without harbouring resentment towards listeners and fans.

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