Review | Bon Iver cast a unique spell once again on 22, A Million
22, A Million
In an interview from 2012, at the height of Bon Iver’s promotional tour for their sophomore album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon likened his highly successful band to a faucet.
He proclaimed, to the dismay of both fans and critics, “I have to turn [Bon Iver] off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious. 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 like that.”
Four years later, Vernon has collaborated with variety of artists including James Blake, Aaron Dessner and Kanye West whose respective styles have inevitably left an imprint on his current material. The latter, of course, makes for an unexpected union considering Vernon’s pared back, folk origins. Vernon was sampled, famously, on Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne, as well as contributing vocals to songs on both My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. There was a time where songs, particularly of the hip hop variety, featured vocal samples that were often mistaken for Vernon’s distinct style. It was apparent that he was becoming a musical commodity. Now that his musical sabbatical has brought him back to Bon Iver, Vernon’s return is undeniably refreshed. 22, A Million, is an exhilarating experimentation of sounds, musically and vocally. It effortlessly stands out in the year lauded with the return of Frank Ocean, which pales in comparison.
Vernon’s approach to making music could be construed as a bubbling cauldron of contradictions. This is a musician whom locked himself away in a cabin for three months to write and record his debut, and seminal album, For Emma, Forever Ago. It seemed as though this was a project of limitations exclusive to one man and his guitar with little room for improvisation. However, this was the misconception Vernon desperately wanted to defy with how he would present his music. He invited musicians to perform with him, add density to the tempo and capture an energy born from musicians given the freedom to play. Thematically, heartbreak has remained central to the songs, while places provided a uniformity to Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Adhering to a particular theme has been integral to how Bon Iver have made records, 22, A Million, is no exception with cryptic numerical structures (’33 “GOD”’ was intentionally released 33 days before the album was unveiled, as well as lasting 3 minutes and 33 seconds) and song titles inspiring both amusement, confusion and intrigue. It’s not everyday that you come across a title such as ‘___45___’ or ’21 M00N Water.’ What a time to be alive.
Many, myself included, were startled by the initial enormity of Bon Iver’s musical transformation with the direction of this record. However, when you listen to 22, A Million, it is not in fact a million miles away from the modestly arranged debut from a decade ago. Vernon’s layered vocals have been a constant throughout, and when you listen closely to previous albums you can hear fleeting moments bracing non-linear arrangements for a genre that is so easily accused of being restrictive on a musicians capacity to get creative with composition and content. In the case of Bon Iver, there has always been a subtle, underlying diversity in their discography. Now, after engaging freely with other projects, Bon Iver have made ten songs that embody a band that are uninhibited in their creative expression, and in turn, an exceptional album that deserves your attention.
So, with a contextual overview of the journey to 22, A Million, how does it compare to and co-exist with its predecessors? ‘22 (Over S00N)’ is closely related to the songs of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it softly reacquaints us with Vernon’s synonymous melodic voice, combined with a computerised backing track that remains omnipresent throughout. The initial, familiar hushed tone is abruptly quashed with ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ’, a feverishly distorted drum pattern overlaid with some more Siren-like vocals. It’s incredibly infectious, and not what you would expect. The song ventures far enough down the road of musical discovery without wandering aimlessly, and more important without losing its audience. If anything, this diversity (as well as Vernon’s continuously expanding profile) can only garner positive feedback and a broader audience. My one criticism lies with ‘715 CREEKS’ which is abrasive, especially after the already commanding, ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ’. This momentary glitch is soon forgotten once your ears come alive to the erratic saxophone at the end of ’21 M00N Water’, a truly awe striking moment, one of many to be enjoyed in the 34-minute duration.
As the tone mellows, ’33 “GOD”’, ’29 #Strafford APTS’ and ‘666′ present a perfect triptych in showcasing the modernisation of how the piano, drums and guitar have been utilised. Lyrically, they are overflowing with the heart rendering stories and emotions that we have felt simultaneously in both the spring and winter of meaningful relationships. Lines such as “I’d be happy as hell, if you stayed for tea”, and “Why are you so far from saving me”, are so recognisable that you cannot but become fully engaged with the sincerity of feeling that conceived these tracks. Once again, Vernon makes himself totally available to his audience, which is how it should be.
‘00000 Million’ brings a sublime end, a haunting composition of Vernon and a piano and the words, “And I walked it off: how long I’d last / Sore-ring to cope, whole band on the canyon / Cause the days have no numbers / Well it harms me it harms me it harms, I’ll let it in.” With that, you can walk away from 22, A Million feeling renewed, or something like that.