Review Summary: One of the most important pieces of music you will hear this year.
When considering what Bon Iver has done with its first three full-length records, it’s downright incredible. What started as Justin Vernon confronting his demons in a secluded Wisconsin cabin whilst possessing little more than an acoustic guitar evolved into an array of beautiful synthetic sounds, and has now finally taken complete shape with the release of the glitchy, tricked-out 22, A Million
. I’d almost be inclined to say that’s what he set out to do; create three innovative, totally separate masterpieces en route to becoming the Radiohead of modern folk. However, throughout his advancement from the meek Emma
to the regal self-titled venture – and now all the way to whatever this
qualifies as – the progression has been so natural and effortless on the surface that it seems even more likely that Vernon is just making this shit up as he goes along. Do you think he had any idea while penning ‘Skinny Love’ that he’d ever end up composing something with the title ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’ or as autotuned as ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’? The answer is no…and if he actually did
, then we ought to immediately crown Mr. Vernon as the musical visionary of our generation.
The funny thing is that he might earn such accolades anyway. Despite the fact that Bon Iver represents one of the most experimental, forward-thinking, and downright pretentious projects of the past decade, its output has been consistently jaw-dropping both in beauty and stature. Musical approach aside, that’s the one thing that 22, A Million
has in common with its predecessors above all else: it lives and breathes the same type of “Bon Iver atmosphere.” If For Emma, Forever Ago
felt like a cold, snowy night spent in isolation and Bon Iver, Bon Iver
represented that first ray of sunlight that melts the frost on your bedroom window, then 22, A Million
feels – in spite of all its inherently cold electronic elements and autotune – like the warmest
record Vernon has crafted to date. At times it is akin to laying under the stars on a clear summer night (take the wistful, indecipherable verses of 29 #Strafford APTS), and at other times it feels more like being caught in a heavy rain storm while bursts of lightning pulse throughout the sky (the discordant clashing of 33 “GOD”). So even if you could have seen 22, A Million
coming from the hundreds of miles away where ‘Beth/Rest’ resided, how this album will make you feel is as unpredictable as any Bon Iver record comes.
Strictly from an artistic standpoint, you’ll be hard pressed to find an album this year that pushes quite as many boundaries as 22, A Million
does while still managing to keep the core sound of its respective artist intact. After all, despite its vast departures on several different horizons, this is still very recognizably Bon Iver
. ‘8 (circle)’ may best represent this, bringing forth some of the most personal sounding elements here ranging from vocals that actually aren’t
electronically altered in any way to the subtle stroke of brass that graces the song’s midsection. In the midst of the beautiful, controlled chaos that is Bon Iver’s third release, it takes comparatively stripped down cuts like this to remind us that Vernon – somewhere in the matrix of numbers of symbols swirling around here – is still harmonizing tortured little melodies to himself in that drafty old cabin. Call it a blazing hearth in the heart of winter, or whatever silly metaphor you want to concoct, but it’s tracks like ‘8 (circle)’ that feel like the emotional centerpiece of 22, A Million
As a whole though, 22, A Million
is more UFO’s and cave symbols than it is heartbreak by the fireplace, marking the most significant stylistic departures yet in the relatively brief history of Bon Iver. The eerie hum of ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’ serves as a docile prelude to the tribal percussion and almost primitive feel of ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, while ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’ manages to sound robotic in approach yet desperately human underneath. There’s moments throughout that are entirely up to the interpretation of the listener – spewing nonsense phrases at us that only make sense if we twist and contort them to match exactly what we want them to mean. That’s the thing about 22, A Million
and all of its cryptic lyrics: they mean nothing and everything all at the same time. I’m almost reminded of Sigur Ros’ ( )
in that sense. While Vernon stops short of making up his own language full of gibberish and random utterances, the seemingly unrelated words that are tied together across the record only manage to be coherent in small bouts. The rest of the time, nothing is certain. But that’s what 22, A Million
is…it’s ambiguity, shrouded in doubt and cut into pieces if for no other reason to prove that Vernon’s genius transcends mere words. His music is powerful, and is more than capable of delivering meaning beyond the confines created by language.
That’s why 22, A Million
is hands down one of the most important pieces of music you will hear this year. Vernon can take his approach and skew it any which way he wants to, and it somehow takes on even more importance the more he scatters it across various genres and production techniques. Artists like Vernon come along ever so rarely, but when they do, they’re capable of reshaping the landscape of music as we know it. It’s something I think we all suspected when For Emma, Forever Ago
hit shelves almost ten years ago, and that feeling was bolstered with the pristine and almost equally brilliant Bon Iver, Bon Iver
. However, 22, A Million
is an entirely different kind of beast. Not only does it confirm that Vernon is a modern visionary at the forefront of folk, but it sets the new standard for experimentalism in alternative music. We’re just fortunate to hear such progressive beauty unfold right in front of us. Enjoy Bon Iver for the once in a generation project that it is.