Bon Iver started off as Justin Vernon’s trip to an isolated Vermont cabin in 2006, where he recorded a series of folk songs consisting mostly of acoustic guitar and pleasant falsetto. The album was straightforward in its commitment to a romantic and melancholic folk sound. Since For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) I can hardly say that Bon Iver is still a folk project. The second album (self-titled, 2011) majorly expanded the repertoire of instruments featured but arguably still maintained a link to the ‘old Justin’ that fans had grown to love. 5 years later, it’s safe to say that the musical identity of Bon Iver has expanded, or gone completely insane.
For a short 34 minute runtime, 22, A Million welcomes in a host of unusual electronic samples, loops and effects that distance Bon Iver even further from 2009’s “Skinny Love”. The result is not simply just a set of enjoyable songs, but an album that leaves me with a feeling of utter bewilderment and confusion.
The first few songs of the album do a fantastic job of showing the ‘new’ Bon Iver in an accessible light. “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” immediately introduces the interplay between electronic loops and Vernon’s familiar falsetto as well as the clean electric guitar and saxophone reminiscent of the band’s second album. The song shows us that there’s no discomfort or disconnect between the new sounds the band is playing around with and the sounds that they are used to. Strange little noises and vocal samples that may only be heard once are peppered throughout this track (mostly iterations or snippets of the phrase ‘it might be over soon’) to great effect. The sheer embellishment makes for a truly beautiful start to the album.
Subsequently, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” (yes, those are dice in the song title) breaks with anything we’ve heard from Bon Iver before. The song is lead on by a harsh tumbling drum beat and sub bass that sound like they would be at home on a Death Grips track. Not only do we hear a heavily modulated and layered vocal track, but we also hear Vernon sing with a sense of urgency that is new to Bon Iver’s otherwise calm and melancholic delivery. The song is certainly one of the most adventurous of the album and the payoff is substantial. That being said, some familiar elements of Bon Iver’s sound – like Vernon’s trademark falsetto – can still be found; but even these familiarities are turned up to eleven: “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” dispenses with the delicate organic character of Bon Iver’s previous work and opts for intensity instead.
The fourth track, “33 “GOD”,” is the crowning achievement of this album. Like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, it’s an effective and innovative mix of conventional live instruments and odd electronic sounds. But “33 “GOD”” isn’t the relatively mellow interlude that the first track is. Rather, this song feels like a successful mix of the best elements of the first and second tracks. The ambient sounds repeated throughout (and described only as “(bird shit)” in the lyric video) are as mysterious as they are pleasant. The interplay between these sorts of calming elements and sudden explosions of bass and drums can only be described as sublime.
“29 #Strafford APTS” returns to more conventional instrumentation with piano and acoustic guitar, but as always, Bon Iver keep their feet planted in both folk and electronic musical territory with a pitch-shifted and layered vocal track. The more folk-oriented fans of the band might be a bit alienated by the mixing of such a strange vocal track with otherwise very traditional instrumentation, but I would argue that if the elements introduced in the previous four tracks were suddenly dropped, this song would appear a bit isolated from the rest of the work.
Around the halfway mark of this album, the novelty of the new sound wears off, but it doesn’t completely fade. Songs like “666 ʇ” aren’t bad by any means, but they don’t carry over the same embellishment of earlier tracks. Similarly, “21 M♢♢N WATER” — though it perhaps gets a free pass as the ‘ambient interlude’ of the album — is underwhelming even if it’s not supposed to be especially captivating or explosive.
Something that occasionally works against this album’s charm is perhaps a bit of over-enthusiasm with manipulating the sounds of normal instruments in order to fit the bill of ‘the new Bon Iver’. This is particularly felt on “____45_____,” where we get a series of weird overlapping and filtered saxophone doodles over Vernon’s cryptic and repetitive lyrics. The saxophone lines are interesting at times, but on the whole it sounds more like the musician is merely testing out what the effect sounds like on his instrument instead of playing a phrase that fits well with the song. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but here it just doesn’t work.
“8 (circle)” picks up the pieces left by a weaker second half and features Vernon’s unusually bare and non-falsetto voice in a slow ballad accompanied by a beautiful backing of layered saxophone lines. Part of me feels like this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but for now it’s one of the tracks I’ve been consistently revisiting. If the production on this song pivoted the slightest bit in favour of more traditional pop instrumentation, it might sound like a sappy ballad played in the background of a dollar store. Nonetheless, “8 (circle)” rounds out the album nicely.
Now, up to this point I’ve held off on discussing the lyrics for any particular track, because although the sound of Vernon’s voice is an integral and effective part of this album, the actual words coming out of his mouth can hardly be said to be the defining characteristic of any of the 10 tracks. It feels like this entire album – from the nearly unintelligible song titles, to the lyrics, to the title of the album and its cover art – is united by an effort to emphasize its own obscurity. I am skeptical of anyone who says that they know exactly what this album is about. Now, subtlety per se is not the problem here. If musicians were to didactically outline what their songs were about, we would be left with essays, not lyrics. But it still helps if the listener has some sort of idea of what’s being said. This is particularly detrimental to the song “715 – CRΣΣKS,” which only features the (again, heavily layered and filtered) voice of Vernon. If a song has been stripped of all instrumentation except for a vocal track, then one might expect a little substance in the lyrics; however, none is found here.
Although Vernon’s ramblings are not utterly incoherent, it would take a pretty ambitious interpretation to join any of the sentences of each verse together to form a coherent message. Perhaps “00000 Million” suggests that the album is dealing with something to do with eternity or afterlife with the repeated line “where the days have no number” but evidence for that interpretation is vague at best. There are critically acclaimed albums that involved drawing phrases out of a hat as a part of their songwriting process, but even then, there are coherent themes.
Even purely instrumental music can give us cues about what mood is trying to be conveyed (for example, with the help of a title) but the titles of these tracks are certainly no help. Though I can say for certain that 22, A Million is very beautiful, it’s hard to qualify that by saying anything specific about its mood or message. In one sense I suppose this is a tricky thing for music to pull off, but it still leaves me feeling like something is missing.
This album is innovative and it successfully plants Bon Iver in a new and exciting musical territory that (I hope) can be explored further in future projects. But as is often the case, albums with heavily experimental aspects to them aren’t always perfect from front to back. 22, A Million’s high points are truly incredible, but its low points teeter on the edge of pure weirdness that is more frustrating than it is captivating.
Highs: 22 (OVER S∞∞N), 33 “GOD”, 8 (circle)
Lows: ____45_____, 21 M♢♢N WATER, every song title